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Heroes of filmcritic.com: Billy Wilder

In his impressive library of cinematic creations, Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was the complete filmmaker — producer, screenwriter, and director — able to work in various genres — musicals, romantic comedy, courtroom drama, film noir, and mysteries.

Where would the cinema world be without Wilder’s plethora of classical and culturally profound films, including Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, and The Apartment? Every film created by Wilder and his writing partners, I.A.L. Diamond and Charles Brackett, still reverberates decades later, with quick directing, sharp dialogue, superb acting, crafty storytelling, and clever plot twists.

After abandoning plans to become a lawyer in the early 1920s, Billy Wilder worked as a writer for a tabloid paper in Berlin and then broke into the screenwriting business in 1929 by writing scripts for many German films. Upon’s Hitler’s rise in power in 1933, Wilder decided to leave Germany due to his Jewish heritage and emigrated to America. Without any type of grasp of the English language, Wilder’s contacts in Hollywood — notably with the infamous actor Peter Lorre with whom he shared an apartment — and quick learning abilities led to an eventual writing/producing partnership with Brackett.

Wilder and Bracket produced a series of excellent films in the 1940s – The Major and the Minor with Ginger Rogers, The Emperor Waltz with Bing Crosby, and A Foreign Affair (Oscar-nominated for Best Screenplay in 1948) with Marlene Dietrich. But, their greatest cinematic achievements are evident in two major films from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The dizzy and difficult expose on alcoholism was the basis for the groundbreaking film The Lost Weekend, which garnered Academy Awards for screenwriting, lead actor for Ray Millard, director for Wilder, and Best Picture of 1946. Next up, in 1950, Sunset Boulevard racked up 11 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and landed Wilder and Brackett an Academy award for Best Screenplay. No doubt the Academy voters frowned up the harsh tone of the film and its razor-sharp interpretation of how the Hollywood system put to pasture the majority of its silent film stars of years past.

Ironically, Wilder’s best film of the 1940s was absent his partner-in-crime Brackett. The classic noir film Double Indemnity was co-scripted by Wilder and one of American’s greatest novelists, Raymond Chandler. The film starred Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck as conniving lovers bent on murder and an insurance claim, earning seven nominations for Wilder and company, though no one found a place at the podium that year.

After Sunset Boulevard, Wilder and Brackett’s partnership dissolved. Wilder’s dramatic films in the 1950s took on a darker tone and were offset by a series of wildly entertaining comedy vehicles. Out of the eight films produced in 1950s, Wilder received nominations for four films and won Best Director Oscars for Stalag 17 and Sabrina as well as Best Screenplay for Sabrina. Wilder’s films of that decade dealt with a variety of issues and topics. Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas, dealt with the media circus hoopla after a small-town tragedy. Stalag 17 centered on the honor of men among a savage Nazi concentration camp. He made two of Marilyn Monroe’s classic comedies, Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch, featuring her famous subway vent skirt lift. And it would be hard to forget Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-winning role in Sabrina‘s love triangle.

From the 1960s to his retirement in 1981 came even more success, with Wilder’s partnership with I.A.L. Diamond, which brought forth a flurry of strong, comedic films. 1960’s Best Picture winner The Apartment should be considered the standard for romantic comedies. Next up, Wilder and Diamond wrote James Cagney’s memorable role as finger-snapping company man C.R. MacNamara in One, Two, Three – which became the role that sent Cagney into retirement due to exhaustion. Afterwards, Wilder employed Jack Lemmon as his leading man for a series of hilarious films including Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie (which launched the team of Matthau and Lemmon), Avanti!, The Front Page, and Wilder’s final film Buddy Buddy.

Billy Wilder garnered over fifteen Academy Award nominations, two Best Director Academy Awards, and three Best Screenplay Academy Awards — all within a relatively 25 year career. One of Hollywood’s greatest film directors, Billy Wilder’s playful and insightful uses of the English language and his resounding images captured on celluloid decades ago will never be forgotten.

Wilder died on March 27, 2002.

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