Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder
Los Angeles Times


Billy Wilder
Film: West side of the 1700 block of Vine Street
Director | Producer | Screenwriter
Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906 in Sucha Beskidzka, Poland
Died March 27, 2002 of pneumonia in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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.

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    Academy Awards

    Year Category Work
    1939 Best Screenplay Ninotchka Nomination*
    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
    1954 Best Director Sabrina Nomination
    1954 Best Screenplay Sabrina 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
    * A joint nomination shared with other people.

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