“People copy, people steal. Most of the pictures they make nowadays are loaded down with special effects. I couldn’t do that. I quit smoking because I couldn’t reload my Zippo.” – Billy Wilder, quoted in The New York Times
He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in a remote corner of a remote province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now part of Poland).
Billy Wilder (1906-2002) died at his home in Beverly Hills, California on March 27, 2002. In the intervening 95 years, an impressive life story unfolded, a life that was to have a lasting impact on Hollywood and world cinema.
Wilder’s mother nicknamed her young son “Billie” because she had seen the Buffalo Bill Wild West show as a teenager. By the time Billie was four years old (the “Billy” spelling came after Wilder was in the US), the family had a fine home in Vienna’s toney First District, living both there and in Kraców until the First World War tore the old Empire apart and created hard times for the Wilders and all Austrians.
The Broadway and London musical productions of Sunset Boulevard, based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie of the same name, and the 1995 remake of Sabrina, Wilder’s 1954 romantic tale featuring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, are good illustrations of how director Billy Wilder’s films tend to endure, much like the man himself. Wilder was still active in his nineties, even if he was no longer directing award-winning movies. With wife Audrey, he enjoyed an active retirement not far from Hollywood, a place and an industry that will forever reflect the talents of this Austrian emigré. (People often mistakenly refer to the director as “German,” although he only spent about six years of his long life working in Berlin.)
Remakes of Wilder’s movies are unnecessary. His classic films are as viewable today as they were in the forties, fifties, or sixties – the peak decades of his directorial career. Wilder has put his brand on a huge body of films, ranging from the dramatic film noir Double Indemnity (1944) to the hilarious Some Like It Hot (1959). Over the years, he directed stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Shirley MacLaine, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Ray Milland, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, and many other noted silver-screen personalities.
The Wilder saga is a true rags-to-riches tale. As a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany (via France), he arrived in Hollywood in 1934 with eleven dollars in his pocket. About half a century later his private art collection went for $32.6 million at a Christie’s auction in 1989. More importantly, his rich contribution to American cinema reflects the personality of a man who always seems to have a wonderful sense of humor, even in his darkest hours, of which he has had more than his share. The anti-heroes of his films are flawed but nevertheless possess a certain strength of character – similar to the Austrian-American gnome (Kobold in German) who created them. Just who was this cinematic icon?
As a boy in Vienna, Wilder spent a lot of time watching Hollywood movies – westerns, comedies, and adventure films. But, according to Kevin Lally’s Wilder Times biography, Wilder also had less-fondly-remembered experiences as a Jew in Austria. “Let us not forget that Mr. Hitler was Austrian. …I always get into terrible fights with the newspapermen there, because I remember my days in school. I remember the attitudes.”
Ironically, Wilder himself had an early career as a newspaper reporter, first in Vienna and later in Berlin. Wilder left Vienna for Berlin in 1927 at the age of 21. His experience as a reporter and script ghostwriter in the wild and libertine Berlin of the 1920s may help explain his later Hollywood scriptwriting talents. He thus managed to use his writing skills, honed as a reporter, to get his foot in the door of Berlin’s growing film community.
In 1929 Wilder worked on two films, one of which would become a cinematic landmark. Wilder became part of the mostly amateur team (all later went on to become important in Hollywood) that produced Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), including Eugen Schüfftan, the cameraman and the only real pro on the team. One of the last silent movies produced in Germany, the film was a cinema verité, on-location production showing the life of ordinary working-class Berliners on a Sunday. More of a critical than a commercial success, Menschen am Sonntag was an “art film” at a time when UFA and the other German studios were starting to focus more on entertainment blockbuster talkies like The Blue Angel (with a young new star named Marlene Dietrich).
By 1933 Wilder and German filmgoers had seen his name as scriptwriter in the credits of 13 films, one the best being Emil und die Detektive (remade less successfully as Emil and the Detectives by Disney in 1964). But Wilder’s time in Germany was running out. At first, according to Wilder, no one in his circle was really that aware of Hitler and the rising Nazi tide. But soon the signs were unmistakable. A Jew had no future in the Third Reich. At the premiere of Wilder’s 14th and last German film, Was Frauen träumen (What Women Dream), on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1933, as the credits rolled by, the names of the two scriptwriters, Franz Schulz and Billie Wilder, were missing. Their names had also been expunged from the printed program. But by then Wilder was already in Paris.
His wise escape from Germany was made a little easier by the fact that Wilder possessed an Austrian rather than a German passport. Unlike many other Austrian Jews, Wilder realized that his homeland would offer no genuine safety in the long run. So it would be France until he could get to his desired final destination, the United States. Billy – who knew some French – soon found work writing scripts. He even helped direct Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed), a French film about a band of young car thieves, featuring a live-action car chase scene and a musical score by Franz Wachsmann (later the award-winning Waxmann). The film also reflected two of Wilder’s passions: fast women and fast cars. But despite his success there, Paris was just a way station.
WILDER IN HOLLYWOOD
“I would rather sleep in a bathroom than in another hotel.”
– Billy Wilder, quoted in Life at the Marmont
On January 22, 1934, after less than a year in Paris, Wilder traveled by ship to New York, where his brother Willie was now living. During his Atlantic crossing, he read some books in English that he was familiar with in German, desperately trying to learn a language he had never studied. Wilder says, “In school I had studied Latin and French. Counting German, all of a sudden that made three dead languages that I knew.” 
From New York Wilder crossed America by train to Hollywood where Joe May, a fellow Austrian then with Columbia Pictures, had promised him a scriptwriting job. The 27-year-old Wilder arrived in Hollywood with barely a cent to his name. He soon lost his job when the studio rejected his first script and Billy’s early days in the Golden State turned out to be less than golden – a time he has termed his “low calorie years.” For a while he shared a room at the Chateau Marmont (“Hollywood’s hippest and hottest haunt”) with Peter Lorre, a fellow Austrian who had spent a few months of exile in Paris before making his way to California.
As if things weren’t tough enough, Wilder’s tourist visa expired and he was forced to leave the country to reapply for a permanent US visa. He had to endure yet another period of exile – this time only a few days – south of the border in Mexicali waiting to get this vital document. Parts of the experience can be seen in the 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn starring Charles Boyer, script by Billy Wilder (and Charles Brackett).
Wilder’s big break came when Paramount’s Manny Wolf decided to team him with the established writer Charles Brackett. Although the two were opposites in many ways, the partnership went well and produced scripts for Ninotchka, Hold Back the Dawn and other above-average movies. Working with a co-writer was nothing new for Wilder. In fact, during his entire writing career, Wilder wrote very few scripts without a partner. With the exception of Double Indemnity (co-written with Raymond Chandler), Brackett would co-write all of Wilder’s films through Stalag 17.
It was his work on Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!” was the publicity catch phrase) that brought Wilder together with the great director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch soon became Wilder’s idol and mentor, and Wilder always kept a sign hanging in his office that asked, “How would Lubitsch do it?” Indeed, Billy now wanted to become a director himself. This was partly because he was getting tired of directors who, in his opinion, were botching his and Brackett’s scripts with their lack of directing talent. His low opinion of some directors became clear when he was once asked if he thought it was important for a director also to know how to write. Wilder’s response: “No, but it helps if he knows how to read.”
Wilder’s directorial debut was The Major and the Minor starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. Not only was the film a resounding success, it reveals Wilder’s early talent for directing (and writing) comedy. The popularity of The Major and the Minor (1942) meant that Wilder could keep on directing, a fact that surprised more than a few studio skeptics. His next film would be Five Graves to Cairo (1943) with Erich von Stroheim and Franchot Tone. Shot in the desert near Yuma, Arizona, Five Graves was a war story very loosely based on Rommel’s (von Stroheim) North Africa campaign.
Billy Wilder’s next film would leave no room for doubt about the director’s talent. Double Indemnity (1944) would be an almost unanimous critical success, garnering seven Academy award nominations, even if it was not that big at the box office. Today, more than 50 years later, most critics agree that this classic film noir is one of the best films of all time. In creating the Double Indemnity script (based on the James M. Cain novel), Wilder worked with the famous crime novelist Raymond Chandler. Although the two did not get along very well personally, their collaboration produced a masterful script and some of the snappiest dialog ever heard in a movie. At one point in the film, Walter (Fred MacMurray) inquires if Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) will also be at his upcoming appointment with her husband by asking, “Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?” The verbal sparring between Walter and Phyllis, dripping with erotic overtones, is a classic piece of movie dialog – “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff…” Wilder the director also managed to coax outstanding performances from his stars, including Edward G. Robinson, for this dark tale of lust and murder.
For his next film, Wilder turned to the theme of alcoholism. The Lost Weekend (1945) brought the team of Brackett and Wilder back together. Based on a novel that Wilder had read on a train trip, The Lost Weekend was a tense, unrelenting story about a writer battling his drinking problem. Ray Milland earned an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of five days in the life of the alcoholic Don Birnam. The film won a total of five Oscars and earned $4.3 million in the US alone, a very respectable sum for the time. But, proving the often false validity of the Academy Awards, The Lost Weekend, showered with Oscars, and as good as it was, just doesn’t hold up as well over time as Double Indemnity, which failed to win a single Oscar.
Things were not going all that well in Wilder’s personal life. In 1945 he was sent to Germany (with the rank of colonel) to help with de-Nazification and to serve as a sort of German film commissioner for the army’s Psychological Warfare Division. While in Germany, Wilder tried unsuccessfully to find his father’s grave in a war-damaged Jewish cemetery in Berlin. He also learned that his mother, stepfather, and grandmother had all died in Auschwitz.
Perhaps to compensate for all the bad news, after his return to the US Wilder was dating two women while he was still married. If Wilder’s career was shooting skyward, his first marriage (to Judith Iribe in 1936) was going in a different direction. Although his marriage didn’t end officially until 1947, it was probably really over before he left for Germany. One of the women he was dating became his mistress for a time, the other would end up becoming Wilder’s next wife.
After The Lost Weekend and its two Academy Awards for Wilder, the director would go on to make his first Technicolor movie, The Emperor Waltz (1948), one of his most forgettable films. Few Billy Wilder films are in color, and his next was no exception. A Foreign Affair – with Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, and John Lund – was set in post-war Berlin and featured some aerial footage of a devastated Berlin that Wilder had shot during his tour of duty there in 1945. Very different from his later One, Two, Three, also shot in Berlin, but in the 1960s just as the Wall was going up, A Foreign Affair offers a good picture of Berlin and the US forces there right after the war.
Wilder went on to make a string of mostly very successful movies, starting with the critically acclaimed Sunset Boulevard in 1950 that earned him his third Oscar. (Hollywood’s revenge for his Sunset exposé about Tinseltown? Because Paramount owned all the rights, Wilder did not receive a dime for the Andrew Lloyd Webber revival of Sunset Boulevard.) But with Sunset his writing partnership with Charles Brackett was fading out about the same time his marriage to Audrey Young faded in. In the summer of 1949 the pair married quietly in Nevada, with a short honeymoon at a modest hotel at Lake Tahoe. They remained married until his death in 2002.
On his next several films, Wilder was in a continuing search for a new writing partner. For a time, he would work with a different co-writer on each film until he finally found the right one. Ace in the Hole (1951, aka The Big Carnival) did poorly at the box office (it did much better in Europe), but not because of the writing. Wilder’s next film, Stalag 17, would be a big hit in 1953. Based on a Broadway production, this film was concerned once again with the Germans and the war – this time in a prisoner-of-war camp, or Stalag.
After Stalag 17, Wilder found another play and a new co-writer to help him adapt it. Ernest Lehman and Billy revised the script for Sabrina (1954) in several ways. One of the biggest changes made for the film was to make the character of Linus (Humphrey Bogart) more of a cad, consistent with Wilder’s preference for the flawed hero. Sabrina would also be his last film for Paramount, where he had worked for some 18 years.
With Love in the Afternoon (1957), Wilder began a successful partnership with the screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond (Itek Dommnici), with whom he would begin a series of films that are now considered some his best work. With the exception of Witness for the Prosecution (1957, based on an Agatha Christie novel and play), Wilder co-wrote all of his next twelve movies with Diamond. This body of work, stretching from 1957 to 1981, includes film gems such as Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (for which Wilder received three Oscars in 1961), The Fortune Cookie (1966) and The Front Page (1974) – all four featuring a young Jack Lemmon. Unfortunately, it also includes not-so-sparkling gems like Irma la Douce (1963) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Billy Wilder worked with some of the most famous actors and actresses of all time. Wilder’s first Marilyn Monroe picture was The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Four years later he would again direct the troubled Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Wilder favorites included Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Marlene Dietrich, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. On the other hand, Wilder and Humphrey Bogart did not get along at all.
Even in his nineties, the Wilder wit continued to sparkle, and over the years he produced one of the world’s largest collections of quotable utterances. Speaking of his 1979 film Fedora, Wilder said, “…if that picture were a person in a crowd, I would not put my arms around it. I would just say, ‘Hey, how are you? We had a good time didn’t we?’” 
During the 1980s and ’90s, Wilder collected a wide array of Austrian and American honors and awards, including the National Medal of Honor from President Clinton—all a tribute to his vast talent and significant contributions to the cinematic world.
1. Quoted in Billy Wilder: Eine Nahaufnahme by Hellmuth Karasek.
2. Quoted in Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder by Kevin Lally and Henry Holt.
Billy Wilder Books
Here are some of the best books written about Billy Wilder and his films.
- Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (Screen Classics)
by Gene D. Phillips. Paper, 464 pages. The University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Kindle, ebook edition.
Amazon.com: “Author Gene D. Phillips departs from the traditional biography in Some Like It Wilder, offering new insights into the acclaimed director’s professional and private life. In preparation for the book, Phillips conducted personal interviews with Wilder and other key players from the legendary director’s life and times. Phillips’s unique combination of analysis and biographical detail brings Wilder to life, as both an artist and man.” Also available in a hardcover edition.
- Conversations with Wilder
by Cameron Crowe. Paper, 400 pages. Knopf, 2001. ISBN: 978-0375709678
Amazon.com: “An invaluable, photo-intensive volume, …a kind of remake of Truffaut’s must-read interview book Hitchcock, with Cameron Crowe in the inquisitive Truffaut role and wily 93-year-old Billy Wilder as the crafty master director.”
- On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder
by Ed Sikov. Hardcover. Hyperion, 1999.
Publishers Weekly: “The book’s film criticism works best as a tool for gleaning Wilder’s sensibility from his scripts and direction. The often irascible, always witty Wilder emerges from these pages as shrewd, eminent and, especially in comparison with today’s tepid Hollywood fare, daringly authentic.”
- Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler. Hardcover. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Publishers Weekly: “…a rich compendium of primary source material, containing interviews with Wilder himself, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Gloria Swanson and others. …readers will not find critical appraisals of Ace in the Hole or Sunset Boulevard. However, the author does richly document the making of some of Wilder’s masterpieces…”
- Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder
by Kevin Lally. Hardcover, 496 pages. Henry Holt, 1996.
Amazon.com: “In the first English-language biography of Wilder in a generation, Kevin Lally, managing editor of Film Journal International, recounts Wilder’s story, from his childhood in Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter before becoming a director. Lally also takes a close look at each of Wilder’s films.”
- Billy Wilder: Eine Nahaufnahme (in German)
von Hellmuth Karasek, Heyne, 1992. ISBN 3-4530-7201-4. A German biography of the Austrian director. “Ein Glücksfall von einer Biographie: Hellmuth Karaseks Großaufnahme von Billy Wilder” – Die Weltwoche
Chateau Marmont Books
Two books about the hotel known as the Chateau Marmont, 8221 Sunset Boulevard, a piece of Hollywood history and home at one time to many Hollywood and Austrian film people, including Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, and Billy Wilder:
- Hollywood Handbook edited by André Balazs. 1996, Universe Publishing, a division of Rizzoli, New York. Paperback. ISBN 0-7893-0023-0.
The Chateau Marmont opened for business on Feb. 1, 1929 as an exclusive apartment house. In 1931 it was sold and converted to a hotel. The 1932 Olympics filled the Marmont to capacity and it soon became THE hotel for the Hollywood community. This fascinating book is an illustrated collection of writings about the famous people and sometimes bizarre events related to living at the Marmont. Contains segments by and about Billy Wilder, Hedy Lamarr, and much of Hollywood. Many photos by Helmut Newton and others. – More about this book.
- NEW! Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten.
Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint paperback edition (April 30, 2013) ISBN: 978-0143123118
All about the hotel that Wilder and other stars learned to hate, but that later drew leading rock and folk stars, from Jagger to Baez, and TV performers like John Belushi, who died there. Sarlot was a co-owner of the Marmont; Basten is the author of Glorious Technicolor.
KINDLE: Life at the Marmont (ebook)
- Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten.
Publisher: Roundtable, 1987. ISBN 978-0915677238
The same book as above, but an older edition that is now out of print.
Next | Films by Billy Wilder
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Films by Billy Wilder – A Wilder filmography
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood – About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Marlene Dietrich was one of Billy Wilder’s best friends in Hollywood.
- Austria – Country Information – Learn more about Wilder’s homeland.
- Berlin City Guide – The sights and history of the German capital, where Wilder worked for many years.
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
ON THE WEB
- Billy Wilder – IMDb
- Billy Wilder – Wikipedia
- Billy Wilder: About film noir – An interview with the director about film noir – those by him and others.
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