Nearly all of Billy Wilder’s films display his satiric wit. He worked successfully in various genres, from the noir of Double Indemnity to the wild farce of Some Like It Hot, and created several of Hollywood’s most unforgettable pictures. Among the many iconic images in Wilder’s movies, none are more memorable than Audrey Hepburn, playing the title role in Sabrina, sitting lovelorn in a tree, or Marilyn Monroe standing on a grate, her skirt billowing, in The Seven Year Itch. In the final scene of Some Like It Hot, when Jack Lemmon removes his wig and reveals that “Daphne” is a man in drag, the oblivious suitor (expertly played by Joe E. Brown) delivers one of the cinema’s most famous last lines: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Wilder was born on June 22, 1906, in an Austro-Hungarian province now part of Poland. As a young man, his break in the film industry was the opportunity to co-write People on Sunday [Menschen am Sonntag], made in Germany. He continued to write film scenarios there until the Nazis rose to power. After a short time working in France, Wilder arrived in Hollywood.
His first major success in America was Ninotchka (1939), a screwball comedy starring Greta Garbo and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born director who was a strong influence on Wilder. (A sign reading “How would Lubitsch do it?” hung in Wilder’s office for many years.) One of his collaborators on Ninotchka, Charles Brackett, became an important writing partner for Wilder.
The first film Wilder directed in Hollywood was The Major and the Minor (1942). Ginger Rogers played a woman pretending to be a child in order to get a reduced-fare train ticket, and Ray Milland was an Army officer disconcerted by his attraction to her.
With Raymond Chandler, Wilder wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944), with Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who teams up with an insurance agent (played by Fred MacMurray) to murder her husband. This film, considered risky material for its time, set conventions for later noir films and brought Wilder his first Academy Award nomination for best direction.
The Lost Weekend (1945), frequently cited as the screen’s first serious treatment of alcoholism, starred Ray Milland as a troubled writer. Wilder won Academy Awards for his direction and writing (with Brackett); Milland won for his acting; and the film was voted Best Picture.
Wilder, who had become an American citizen, joined the U.S. Army near the end of World War II. One of his duties was to help develop guidelines for the reconstituted German film industry. He also edited a documentary (Death Mills) on the Nazi concentration camps, using footage shot immediately after the camps were liberated. Wilder’s mother had perished at Auschwitz.
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Sunset Boulevard (1950), written with Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., was another career milestone. A dark satire of Hollywood, it showcased Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a star of the silent screen who is planning her comeback. In a memorable exchange, when Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) remarks that she “used to be big,” Desmond replies, “I ambig. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Wilder’s next important writing partnership, beginning in 1957, was with I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he created Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and other films. Some Like It Hot (1959) starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as musicians who, when pursued by gangsters, dress as women and join an all-girl band; Marilyn Monroe unforgettably played the group’s singer, Sugar Kane. The Apartment (1960) starred Lemmon as a corporate striver who scores points by letting his married boss use his apartment for romantic trysts. For the latter film, Wilder won three Academy Awards—for writing, directing, and producing (“Best Picture”). Among Wilder’s many other works are the World War II comedy-drama Stalag 17 (1953); the courtroom thriller Witness for the Prosecution (1957); and The Fortune Cookie (1966), a comedy pairing Lemmon with Walter Matthau. Wilder received 21 “Oscar” nominations in his career and in 1987 was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award for “a producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality.” He received many other awards and tributes as well, including the National Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton. Four of his films—Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, and The Apartment—were included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies.
Despite winning so many honors, Wilder maintained a workmanlike attitude: “I just make a picture and I hope that it’s going to be good, that it’s going to entertain people and going to show them something which they have not seen yet.” Like Lubitsch, Wilder put greater emphasis on story and language than on visual effects. His movies were often thought cynical; the world in his films, not unlike the one he had experienced in his youth, belonged to those who could think fast and adapt to various situations. Disguise was a frequent thematic motif in his work.
Billy Wilder died at age 95 on March 27, 2002, at his home in Beverly Hills. Recalling the end of Some Like It Hot, his tombstone is inscribed: “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”
Billy Wilder is one of four directors featured on the Great Film Directors pane. The stamps will be issued on May 23 in Silver Spring, Maryland, but you can preorder them today!