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Happy Birthday, Billy Wilder, Director of “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Boulevard”

June 22, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934 with $11 in his pocket, making his rise to fame as a producer, director and screenwriter of Hollywood’s golden age all the more like a fairy tale. In films like “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Boulevard,” he turned the camera lens on the vanity, temptation and zaniness of American life.

Billy Wilder’s Early Days

Billy Wilder was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in Sucha, Austria-Hungary. His mother, who had lived in the United States, nicknamed him “Billy” due to her adoration of Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody.

He grew up in Vienna watching Hollywood adventures, westerns and comedies. He left Austria for the thriving Berlin film scene in 1927, where he honed his writing skills by working as a newspaper reporter and script ghostwriter, nudging his way into the Berlin film community.

Wilder, a Jew, fled Germany after the Nazis took power in 1933. He moved to Paris, where he got his first shot at directing with “Mauvaise Graine” (Bad Seed), which told of the deteriorating morals of a rich young man. At the same time, Wilder was sending his scripts and film ideas to Hollywood, hoping for a break. In 1934, he finally got an invitation to adapt one of his stories, prompting a move to Hollywood.

Wilder’s Moviemaking Career

Wilder arrived in Hollywood with little money or knowledge if English, but he managed to get a number of jobs as a screenwriter. In 1936, he met Charles Bracket while writing “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” beginning a long, productive writing partnership. The two worked together on 13 films between 1936 and 1950, including Wilder’s first hit, “Ninotchka,” and two films for which they won Academy Awards for screenplay, “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Boulevard.”

“The collaboration between the urbane erudite Republican and the racy liberal Wilder was reputedly stormy,” writes Richard Armstrong of the British Film Institute, “but set sophisticated standards for the treatment of sex and human flaw in American comedy.”

Wilder’s first major success was 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” a film noir he directed and co-wrote with famed detective novelist Raymond Chandler.  Adapted from James M. Cain’s novella of the same title, the film concerns a plot by a married woman (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband, with the help of her lover (Fred MacMurray), in order to pick up a lucrative insurance return.

The film served as a prototype for film noirs to come. John Seitz’s cinematography captured a stark mise en scène of light and shadow, suggesting an interweaving of the moral and immoral: “The hero is not a criminal,” writes critic Roger Ebert of the film, “but a weak man who is tempted and succumbs.”

Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) was a sharp, sinister portrait of Hollywood in decay. Gloria Swanson plays the infamous Norma Desmond—the faded film star—with disillusioned narcissism. Luckless screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) agrees to work with Desmond on the script that will spark her “comeback,” but the gig quickly descends into a Faustian pact. “Sunset Boulevard” was also made into a musical on Broadway and in London, illustrating the boundless adaptability of Wilder’s work.

When “Some Like It Hot” was released in 1959, A.H. Weiler wrote in The New York Times that a “viewer might question the taste of a few of the lines, situations and the prolonged masquerade, but Mr. Wilder and his associates generally make their points with explosive effect.”

The film is, at its core, about competing desires: two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) disguise themselves as women while on the run from mobsters, but the charade evolves into an agonizing form of deceit when the two become infatuated with the voluptuous Suger (Marilyn Monroe). “Some Like It Hot” is widely regarded as one of the greatest film comedies.

The Rest of the Story

Wilder died on March 28, 2002, at the age of 95. Over the course of his six-decade career, he directed, produced or wrote 69 films. He won seven Academy Awards: three for screenwriting, two for directing, a Best Picture award, and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. He also won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1986.

He once said that he had 10 commandments of filmmaking: “The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have the right of final cut.” In interviews with director Cameron Crowe in 2002, he gave more detailed word of advice for successful screenwriting.

He stressed the importance of keeping the audience entertained and respecting its intelligence. His final piece of advice: “The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.”

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