Billy Wilder hit Hollywood in 1934 not knowing a word of English, yet he became one of its most elegant practitioners.
The Austrian native had fled Germany, where he was working as a successful screenwriter, after Adolf Hitler came to power. Wilder never lost his heavy Viennese accent, nor his cosmopolitan and essentially European vision of the ways of the world.
His characters were frequently flawed or at least sublimely dense, like Jack Lemmon as the amazingly naive policeman in "Irma la Douce" (1963) or the TV cameraman being manipulated by the larcenous Walter Matthau in "The Fortune Cookie" (1966) (one of Wilder's best films, denied its fullest appreciation because it was made in the by-then unfashionable black and white).
As a writer-director, Wilder had plenty of attitude, and William Holden once famously remarked that Wilder's brain was full of rusty razor blades. Yet most of the time, his view of his characters was less hostile than amused, and he regarded many of them, and their ultimate destinies, with a kind of melancholy forbearance occasionally bordering on sentimentality.
Wilder worked as a director, writer and producer of both antic farce and serious drama, earning 21 Academy Award nominations and winning six. In 1987 he was honored by the Academy a final time, getting the Irving G. Thalberg Award for the "consistently high quality of motion picture production."
Wilder put his indelible stamp on some 50 films, beginning in 1929 with German scripts he wrote in Berlin through his final pictures: the very American "The Front Page" in 1974, "Fedora" in 1978 and the poorly received "Buddy Buddy" in 1981.
Wilder the comic writer and director could also be a poet of cynicism and despair. His direction of novelist James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" (which Wilder co-wrote with Raymond Chandler) in 1944 resulted in a film noir classic.
But of all Wilder's films, perhaps the most revered by Hollywood itself was the 1950 dark tale of Hollywood, "Sunset Boulevard," featuring Gloria Swanson as an aging silent-screen star whose fantasies of her former fame and beauty are aroused by a cynical young writer (Holden).
Wilder disparaged lifetime tributes as "Quick, before they croak" awards, but lived to collect several: the Life Achievement Award of the Directors Guild in 1985 and the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute in 1986, in addition to the Thalberg.
Although he was in failing health in his 90s, the ever-dapper Wilder continued to go to his Beverly Hills office almost daily, reading and keeping tabs on film as well as art, of which he was an extremely knowledgeable collector. And he remained an icon to those around the world who make — and love — motion pictures.
|1941||Best Screenplay||Hold Back the Dawn||Nomination*|
|1941||Best Original Story||Ball of Fire||Nomination*|
|1944||Best Director||Double Indemnity||Nomination|
|1944||Best Screenplay||Double Indemnity||Nomination*|
|1945||Best Director||The Lost Weekend||Win|
|1945||Best Screenplay||The Lost Weekend||Win*|
|1948||Best Screenplay||A Foreign Affair||Nomination*|
|1950||Best Director||Sunset Boulevard||Nomination|
|1950||Best Story and Screenplay||Sunset Boulevard||Win|
|1951||Best Story and Screenplay||The Big Carnival||Nomination*|
|1953||Best Director||Stalag 17||Nomination|
|1957||Best Director||Witness for the Prosecution||Nomination|
|1959||Best Director||Some Like It Hot||Nomination|
|1959||Best Adapted Screenplay||Some Like It Hot||Nomination*|
|1960||Best Picture||The Apartment||Win|
|1960||Best Director||The Apartment||Win|
|1960||Best Original Screenplay||The Apartment||Win*|
|1966||Best Original Screenplay||The Fortune Cookie||Nomination*|
|1987||Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award||Win|