Everything you need to know about Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder in 1963 on set of Irma La Douce

by Sharon Reid |

From Sunset Boulevard to Some Like It Hot we look back at director Billy Wilder’s incredible cinematic legacy.

“Nobody’s perfect.” A closing line that’s impossible to forget. Understated, cleanly delivered and downright ridiculous. Like so many of Billy Wilder’s films, Some Like It Hot blends comedy, drama and a hint of indefinable quirkiness that has ensured a lasting legacy not many directors have achieved.

Wilder wasn’t actually as prolific as you might imagine (which just goes to show how many of his project were solid gold hits) making 25 films over a 40-year career. His back catalogue is a ‘who’s who’ of Fifties movie stars, as he coaxed dazzling performances out of Marilyn, Audrey, Bogey, Dietrich, Cagney and, of course, the wonderfully rubber-faced Jack Lemmon. His skill was working across different genres, as both a co-writer and director, as happy to turn his hand to a mistaken identity comedy as suspenseful mysteries.

Wilder life

He was born in Sucha, Austria in 1906 (an area that now belongs to Poland) but grew up mostly in Vienna, and an early career as a journalist and screenwriter saw him settle in Berlin. However, Hitler’s rise to power meant that in 1933 he decided to start over – first in Paris, and ultimately in Hollywood. Here, despite not being fluent in English, he worked as a screenwriter with writing partner Charles Brackett on romantic comedies including Midnight and Ninotchka throughout the late Thirties and early forties. The pair had two screenplays nominated for Oscars, but Wilder found the process of writing frustrating, as he longed for more creative control. He later joked he became a director to stop other people butchering his scripts.

At that time, very few screenwriters made the transition to director, but Wilder managed it with comedy film The Major and the Minor, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland (although he had hoped for Cary Grant). It went well, and after honing his craft in Five Graves to Cairo he went on to co-write Double Indemnity with Raymond Chandler, which was a resounding success and scored him several Oscar nominations. It’s strange that a director best remembered for his comedies actually cut his teeth on well-regarded film noirs and thrillers.

It was a surprise to everyone when he made the musical The Emperor Waltz – a joyful Technicolor romp starring Bing Crosby. And this element of surprise would become a calling card of his career, whether making a comedy about cross-dressing, a court room drama packed with twists or a man’s temptation when faced with Marilyn’s legs over an air vent – it was hard to predict what you were buying a ticket for when you chose a Wilder film. And audiences loved it.

What makes a Wilder film?

Wilder once said: “A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.” And it seems that he must have been a master of all five, because there’s something distinctive about a Wilder film – no matter the genre.

For one thing, his characters often seem ready to flee – to take on new identities; to lie; even to cross-dress – which, it has been suggested, is a reflection of Wilder’s own experience escaping from Austria and starting over in Hollywood. And while he’s known for making people laugh, there’s a certain darkness underlying even his goofiest films – the bullet holes in a double bass case; the ghost in the ballroom; the fuzzy end of the lollipop. This could well be the result of several personal heartaches Wilder experienced throughout his Hollywood years. His first wife Judith Cappicus had twins (Victoria and Vincent) in 1939, but tragically Vincent died just weeks later. They divorced in 1946, after a decade of marriage. Once the war had ended, he returned to Europe in search of his mother, step-father and grandmother, only to discover they had been killed in the Holocaust.

For all the shifts in genre, there’s one key indicator of a Wilder film – his innate understanding of human behaviour. His characters are so well fleshed out, so that we can understand the motivations of conmen, crooks and even killers, and – for humour or an uncomfortable shudder – recognise elements of ourselves in them.

Nobody’s perfect, perhaps. But Wilder was pretty damn close.

Billy Wilder on set of Sunset Boulevard, which he directed in 1950.
©Billy Wilder on set of Sunset Boulevard, which he directed in 1950.

Wilder's best collaborations

One his skills was understanding the value of collaboration, and as well as particular actors who he cast and re-cast, he also had outstanding partnerships in terms of writing too.

His most famous collaboration was of course with Jack Lemmon, who he first worked with on Some Like It Hot and went on to direct in six other films.

I.A.L. Diamond (known as Iz) and Wilder had a long-standing creative partnership, and the pair co-wrote the screenplay for Some Like It Hot in just four days – in part due to their close friendship. “Never a harsh word, 25 years of working together,” Wilder commented.

Actress Audrey Young was his second wife, they married in 1949 and remained together until his death in 2002. She often worked alongside her husband, as a costume consultant for hits including Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.

Top 5 Billy Wilder films

  1. Some Like It Hot, 1959. This film should be at the top of any best-loved lists thanks to its blend of charming comedy and gorgeous stars.
  1. Sunset Boulevard, 1950. Another belter – a whip-smart look at the cruel world of Hollywood.
  1. The Apartment, 1960. We all fell (yet again) for Jack Lemmon’s comic timing in this comedy-drama co-starring Shirley MacLaine.
  1. Double Indemnity, 1944. This collaboration with Raymond Chandler was said to have shortened the author’s life, but it’s a wonderful film noir with great dialogue.
  1. The Lost Weekend, 1945. Wilder won his first Oscar for directing this tale of murder and adultery.
Gloria Swanson filming Sunset Boulevard, 1950.
Gloria Swanson filming Sunset Boulevard, 1950.

Billy Wilder best quotes

“The opening wasn’t logical, but it was riveting and as long as something is riveting, they will swallow it.” Billy Wilder, on the first scene of Sunset Boulevard, which sees its narrator floating dead in a pool.

“Movies should be like amusement parks. People should go to them to have fun.”

He directed Marilyn twice, in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, teasing out some of her most memorable performances. However, it was a painful process. After the second film wrapped he said: “I’ve discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again.”

“What critics call dirty in our movies, they call lusty in foreign films.”

“I just made pictures I would’ve liked to see.”

“If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”

Things you didn't know about Billy Wilder

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