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Billy Wilder Overview:

Legendary director, Billy Wilder, was born Samuel WIlder on Jun 22, 1906 in Sucha, Galcia, Austria-Hungary (now Poland). Wilder died at the age of 95 on Mar 27, 2002 in Beverly Hills, CA and was laid to rest in Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.

Early Life

Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (present day Sucha Beskidzka Poland). He gained the nickname "Billy" thanks to his mother's fascination with old west hero, Buffalo Bill. He was raised in Jewish household with is older brother William, who would also grow to be a writer/director. His father, Max, owned a successful cake shop located in the Sucha train station while his mother, Eugenie, worked as homemaker. Although his father hoped he would enter the family business, Billy found he had no interest in maintaining the family cake shop. In 1914 the family moved to Vienna in 1914. While in high school Wilder developed an interest in American culture and gain a great appreciation for the work of German-born Hollywood film director Ernst Lubitsch. After graduating high school, Wilder attended the University of Vienna to study law. Soon after, however, he realized he had just as much passion for law as he did for running the family and dropped out to take a job as a journalist. In 1926, Wilder headed to Berlin in hopes of furthering his writing career.

Early Career

When Wilder arrived in Berlin, he found work as a freelance writer for various newspapers including Berliner Zeitung am Mittagi and Querschnitt, concentrating mostly on crime and sports stories. He eventually found stable work for a Berlin tabloid. It is also reported that Wilder made extra money by working as hired dance partner for elderly society women at a Berlin Hotel. During this time Wilder became interested in film and began to actively pursue this burgeoning interest.  In 1929 he co-wrote the screenplay Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), collaborating with fellow future Hollywood director Fred Zimmemann. The film attracted attention from the film company Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), the largest film studio in Germany. During his four years at UFA, Wilder worked on film scenarios and screenplays including Princesse, à vos ordres! And Emil und die Detektive.

In 1933 the Nazi party rose to power in Germany. Wilder, who came from Jewish heritage, then fled from Berlin to Paris in fear of possible persecution. It was while in Paris that Wilder directed his first film, Mauvaise graine, a light comedy chronicling a wealthy young mans adventures into petty crime. During this time, Wilder had also continued working on screenplays that he would send off to Hollywood in hopes they would be considered for production and in December of 1933, Wilder was informed one of his scripted, Pam-Pam, had been accepted. Upon being offered a six-month contract at Colombia Studios, Wilder prompted left for Hollywood. He wasn't even in Paris long enough to see his film released.

Early Hollywood Career

In 1933 Wilder arrived in Hollywood and continued working as a screenwriter. He would become a naturalized citizen of the United States just one year later. After his six-month tenure at Columbia, Wilder moved to Twentieth-Century Fox to adapt the Jerome Kern stage production Music in the Air, starring Gloria Swanson. It was Wilder's first on-screen credit in the United States. Then next year he penned two melodramas, Lottery Lover and Under Pressure. In 1937 he co-wrote the screenplay for the musical Champagne Waltz. Paramount liked his work so much, they put under contract for $250 a week. For his next assignment, Paramount teamed Wilder with former theatre critic turned writer Charles Brackett to write the film Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. Much to Wilder's delight, the film was to be directed by his childhood hero, Ernst Lubitsch. The film was well reviewed and the next year Paramount reteamed Wilder and Brackett for the romantic comedy Midnight. The film was another hit and thus solidified the Wilder-Brackett writing partnership, which would go on to produce 14 screenplays. That same year they were once again paired with director Ernst Lubitsch for the romantic comedy Ninotchka. The film follows the serious and seriously dour soviet spy, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), as she learns to laugh and love while on a mission in Paris. In year of great films, this film proved on of the greatest and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Wilder's first for Best Screenplay.

In 1940 Wilder and Brackett penned the forgettable films Arise, My Lover and Rhythm on the River. The next year the duo penned Hold Back Dawn, a romantic comedy starring Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard. Although the duo was again nominated for a best writing Oscar, Wilder found the direction of to be completely inept and not at all what he had envision. It was then Wilder decided to become a director in order to gain more creative control over his scripts. His next screenplay was for the Howard Hawks screwball comedy Ball Of Fire. The film follows a group of ivory-towered college professors as they pen the next edition of the encyclopedia. The group soon realizes they are out of touch with simple, everyday vernacular and soon call upon nightclub performer (Barbara Stanwyck) to help them bring them back down to earth. Because Wilder was already set on becoming a director in order to protect his scripts from further studio interference, Hawks was more than happy to let Wilder shadow him while on set, allowing Wilder to learn from a true master of his craft. The film was commercial and critical success, with Wilder and Brackett once again received an Academy Award nomination Best Screenplay.

Into the Directors Chair

In 1942, after penning series of great successes, Wilder was finally allowed to step into directors chair for The Major and the Minor. The film was farce starring Ginger Rogers as a woman who pretends to be a 12 year old for a cheaper train fare and ends up falling for accidental protector, Ray Milland. The film was a commercial and critical success, thus allowing Wilder to launch his career as a director. The year he directed the fairly forgettable Five Graves to Cairo. In 1944 Wilder began work on his next project, the film adaption of James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity. The story follows insurance man, Walter Neff, as he is pulled into an insidious plot to murder the husband of housewife, Phyllis Dietrich, for insurance money. The script was co-written by pulp novel author, Raymond Chandler. The film was smash hit with both critics and audiences and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Screenplay. The film also established Wilder as first-rate writer/director, a rarity even in Hollywood. The next year, Wilder re-teamed with Brackett for The Lost Weekend. The film follows the downward spiral of an alcoholic writer during a four day drinking binge. Once again Wilder found himself with a hit on his hand and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. This time, however, he did not go out empty handed, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best screenplay. The film was also the inaugural winner of the Grand Prix Award at the newly minted Cannes Film Festival.

Post WWII Work

Following World War II, Wilder travel back to Germany to serve in the Psychological Warfare Department of the U.S Army. He was tasked with aiding the reconstruction of the German film industry, helping to pen a 400-page manual on how to do so. He also directed the short documentary Death Mills, designed to inform the German people of the audacities committed by the Nazi party. It should also be noted that during the holocaust Wilder lost his mother, stepfather and grandmother to either murder or concentration camps. Upon returning the United States, Wilder was as cynical as ever, and his work reflected that. In 1948 he directed the political satire A Foreign Affair. The story revolves a U.S military man who is torn between his an ex-Nazi lounge singer and the congresswoman woman who was sent to investigate her.  Although a comedy, the film was incredibly cynical, a clear display of Wilder's post-war attitude. The film was released to positive reviews, but the subject matter perhaps hit a little too close to home with American audiences and the film did not fair very well at the box-office. He followed that film with is only musical The Emperor Waltz, released the same year.

In 1950 Wilder began work on what is considered to be his best film, Sunset BLVD. The film almost defies genre, as it is part film noir, part black comedy and all around cynical tale of the place that was giving Wilder his bread and butter: Hollywood. The film follows struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis, as he happens upon aging, has-been silent film actress, Norma Desmond, and proceeds to fall into her web of self-delusions and self destruction. For the role of Norma Desmond, Wilder cast actual faded silent star, Gloria Swanson and even had cameos from other silent stars such as Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B Warner, adding a paradoxical layer of surrealism to the tone of movie. The film was released to almost unanimously positive reviews and was a huge box-office smash. The film would go to be nominated eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Screenplay. The film also marked the last time Wilder and Brackett would collaborate.

Continued Success and comedy

Wilder's follow up to Sunset BLVD was the 1951 film-noir Ace in the Hole starring Kirk Douglas. Although a critical and commercial failure at the time, the film has since become lauded for it's uncompromising look at human nature and the newspaper industry. In 1953 he reteamed with William Holden for the prisoner of war drama Stalag 17. For his work, Wilder was once again nominated for a Best Director Oscar while Holden was award the statue for Best Actor. For the latter half of the 1950's Wilder worked mostly in the genre of comedy. In 1954 he worked with William Holden, Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart for film adaption of Sabrina, while the next year he teamed for the first time with Marilyn Monroe for The Seven-Year Itch. The film is noted for creating the famous image of Monroe's white dress flying above her head while standing on a subway grate. In 1957 Wilder had a critical and commercial bomb with the May-December romance Comedy Love in the After but quickly recovered with the murder mystery Witness for the Prosecution released later that year. In 1959 teamed with I.A.L Diamond for the first time to pen the gender-bending comedy Some Like It Hot, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. The film centers around two Jazz musicians who must masquerade as women in an all female jazz band in order escape the wrath of Mob boss, Spatz Colombo. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and since become one of the most beloved comedies of all time. In 1960, Wilder again teamed with writer I.A.L Diamond and Jack Lemmon for the bleak comedy, The Apartment. The centers around insurance man C.C Baxter, played by Lemmon, who lend his apartment to his philandering bosses in order to gain career favor with them. The film was smash hit both critic-wise and commercial-wise, grossing over 25 million dollars, box-office-wise. The film was then nominated for ten Academy Awards, taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Art direction, black-and-white.  The next year Wilder and Diamond penned yet another political satire, this time taking shot the Cold War in 1961's One, Two, Three starring James Cagney as Coca-Cola's head of operations, C.R MacNamara. Although the films faired well with critics, much like A Foreign Affair, Wilder seemed a bit too-on-the-nose for the publics likening and the film was box-office failure. For his next film, Wilder re-teamed with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine for the semi-musical comedy Irma la Duce. In the film, Lemmon plays Nester, a naive young cop who falls for Parisian prostitute Irma la Douce (MacLaine). The film was a critical and commercial hit, raking on over 25 million dollars.

Decline

Although Wilder started the decade strong, by the mid-sixties his career started to decline. In 1964 he wrote and directed the massive flop Kiss Me, Stupid, starring Dean Martin and Kim Novak. The film was disappointment to fans and critics, leaving it a failure at the box-office. He followed that up with the comedy/drama hybrid, Fortune Cookie. The film is most memorable for first pairing actors Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, thus forming a comedic duo that would last 11 films. His next project was an uncredited writing gig for the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. In 1970 he wrote and directed the Sherlock Homles spoof The Private Life of Sherlock Homles. The plot was less concerned with murder mysteries and focused more on the comical details of Holmes' personal life. Although well reviewed by critics, it was another box-office failure. As the decade waded on, Wilder continued to direct one box-office failure after another, including Avante, The Front Page, and Fedora. In  1981, Wilder directed his final film Buddy, Buddy starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The film was box office and commercial failure, and Wilder would retire from making after pictures soon after.

Later Life and Awards

After retiring from the movie business in 1981, a year later he was honored by Film Society of Lincoln Center by paying tribute to him as one of America greatest directors. In 1988 he was awarded with the American Film Institutes Lifetime Achievement Award. That same year he also was the recipient of the Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1988 Oscars Ceremony. In 1993 he was awarded with the prestigious Nation Medal of the Arts. Remaining active over the next two decades, Wilder became interested in the arts outside of the cinema, amassing an impressive personal art collection as well as dabbling in sculpture himself. In 1993 he even had his displayed at art dealers Louis Stern's gallery in Beverly Hills. Like the best of Wilder's films, his art was solid crowd pleaser. Billy Wilder died on March 27, 2002 in Beverly Hills, California due to complication from pneumonia. He was 95 years old. 

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).

HONORS and AWARDS:

.

Billy Wilder was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three for Best Director for The Lost Weekend and The Apartment in 1945 and 1960 respectively for Best Writing for The Lost Weekend in 1945. He also won one Honorary Award in 1987 Billy Wilder .

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1941Best WritingHold Back the Dawn (1941)N/ANominated
1944Best DirectorDouble Indemnity (1944)N/ANominated
1945Best DirectorThe Lost Weekend (1945)N/AWon
1945Best WritingThe Lost Weekend (1945)N/AWon
1950Best DirectorSunset Blvd. (1950)N/ANominated
1953Best DirectorStalag 17 (1953)N/ANominated
1954Best DirectorSabrina (1954)N/ANominated
1957Best DirectorWitness for the Prosecution (1957)N/ANominated
1959Best DirectorSome Like It Hot (1959)N/ANominated
1960Best DirectorThe Apartment (1960)N/AWon

Academy Awards (Honorary Oscars)

YearAwardDescription
1987IRVING G. THALBERG MEMORIAL AWARDBilly Wilder

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He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures.

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