From the Archives: Billy Wilder, 95; Director, writer and producer won six Oscars and peers’ envy
Billy Wilder, the director, writer and producer of both antic farce and serious drama who was nominated for 21 Academy Awards and won six, has died. He was 95.
Wilder, who had been in failing health for some time, died of pneumonia Wednesday at 11 p.m. at his home in Beverly Hills, his wife, Audrey, said Thursday.
As his health declined during the last few years, Wilder began lumping his various physical problems—including diminished eyesight, a cancer battle and frailties of old age—into what he called his “malady.”
Yet the ever-dapper Wilder continued to go to his Beverly Hills office almost daily well into his 90s, 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.
“There are few filmmakers who don’t crave being compared to him. His is a tough-minded romanticism and elegance; the lack of sentimentality has left him forever relevant as an artist,” wrote director Cameron Crowe in his 1999 book, “Conversations With Billy Wilder.”
“Wilder was a great collaborator,” Times critic Kenneth Turan said. “Working first with Charles Brackett and then with I.A.L. Diamond, he co-wrote and directed films that have become the standard by which others are judged. He did this not once, but several times, in genres ranging from sex farce (‘Some Like It Hot’) and romantic comedy (‘Ninotchka’) to the darker areas of film noir (‘Double Indemnity’) and the social-problem picture (‘The Lost Weekend’). And in ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ he made the ultimate Hollywood-on-Hollywood film as well.”
“His mind and personality were so strong, it was easy to be lulled into thinking he would go on forever,” Curtis Hanson, director and co-writer of “L.A. Confidential,” said Thursday in a statement. “As a man he was witty and irreverent, of course, but he was also a humanist. And he was a relentless enemy of pomposity, particularly refreshing in this age of inflated self-importance. As a writer-director, he was an inspiration and teacher to us all.”
“The great master is finished here,” actress Shirley MacLaine, who starred in Wilder’s films “The Apartment” and “Irma la Douce,” said in a statement. “He will write and direct another masterpiece in heaven. I learned more from him than anyone else. I will miss him till we meet again.”
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. He was content to let his body of work stand, kept no prints or tapes, and rarely watched his movies in later years. When friends tried to trick him into attending a Los Angeles Conservancy showing of his “Double Indemnity” a few years ago, Wilder refused, commenting: “I don’t want to see all those dead people.”
“I don’t like the idea of redoing,” he told The Times in January 2000, when he was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before a retrospective of 27 of his films presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the American Cinematheque. “I did the best I could at the time. I want to leave it that way.”
Although he respected certain contemporary directors, including Steven Spielberg, Wilder didn’t envy them and came to believe that modern audiences flock to theaters because of stars rather than directors. “The glamour of being a director is over,” he said in 2000. “So is the fun.”
Although Wilder arrived in this country from Europe in 1934 with minimal knowledge of English, his use of the language on and off screen became legendary for its pithiness and sharp wit. And though he was nominated eight times by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as best director, a total bested only by William Wyler, all of his films were well and truly written before they were anything else.
Wilder’s words were not only stylish, they brought a wide variety of material to life. Few creators of knockabout comedies as popular as “Some Like It Hot” were equally comfortable with dark and even brooding material.
But 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, and he startled audiences in 1950 when his “Sunset Boulevard,” perhaps Hollywood’s definitive look at itself, turned out to be narrated by a corpse.
In person, Wilder’s verbal thrusts could be just as incisive as the dialogue he scripted. He counseled one actor, “You have Van Gogh’s ear for music,” advised Walter Matthau that “we’re on the track of something absolutely mediocre,” and wooed his wife by telling her, “I’d worship the ground you walk on if you lived in a better neighborhood.”
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; the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute in 1986; and the Irving G. Thalberg Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1987 for the “consistently high quality of motion picture production.”
His six Oscars spanned the years of his greatest success. He won two for co-writing and directing “The Lost Weekend” in 1945, one for co-writing “Sunset Boulevard” in 1950, and three for producing, co-writing and directing “The Apartment” in 1960.
Wilder also won the Palme d’Or, the top award, from the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946, for “The Lost Weekend,” starring Ray Milland in a riveting tale of an alcoholic writer.
Samuel Wilder was born June 22, 1906, in the town of Sucha, in a section of Poland that was then in the Austro-Hungarian empire. His mother, Eugenia, who died in Auschwitz during World War II, had lived in the United States in her youth and nicknamed her second son “Billy” because of her fascination with the American frontier hero Buffalo Bill Cody.
After moving to Vienna with his family in 1914, young Billy developed an affinity for American jazz, westerns and the satirical films of gifted German director Ernst Lubitsch, who preceded him to Hollywood. In 1924, Wilder spent three months in the University of Vienna’s pre-law program but dropped out to become a reporter for the newspaper Die Stunde, writing personality profiles and crime and sports stories.
In 1926, Wilder got a job in Berlin handling publicity for touring American bandleader Paul Whiteman.
Wilder’s colorful entry into screenwriting, as told by biographer Maurice Zolotow, occurred one night in Berlin when he agreed to help his landlady’s daughter, Lulu, out of a jam. When her boyfriend suddenly appeared at their apartment house, Wilder agreed to hide the sometime-prostitute’s client in his room. He immediately recognized his naked guest as a man known only as Galitzenstein, the president of Maxim Films, and, introducing himself as a screenwriter, offered him a script to read.
Hearing the raging boyfriend in the next room vow that he would slit the throat of any man he caught with Lulu, Galitzenstein hefted the script in his hand and said: “I’ll buy it. It feels like a good story.”
Wilder was soon writing screenplays for UFA, Germany’s top movie company. Although he ghostwrote several other films, Wilder considered his film debut to be “Menschen am Sonntag” (“People on Sunday”) in 1929. He became popular overnight and remained much in demand until 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power and Wilder fled.
“I had a new Graham-Page American car and a new apartment furnished in Bauhaus, and I sold everything for a few hundred dollars,” Wilder said many years later. “A lot of my friends had a fear of going into a country where they didn’t speak the language, so they went to Vienna or Prague, which was very shortsighted. . . . I sensed that it was best to go as far as possible. I was on the train to Paris.”
During his 10-month stay in France, he wrote and co-directed the film “Mauvaise Graine” (“Bad Seed”), about young auto thieves. Then he wrote the script “Pam Pam” for Columbia.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1934, unable to speak English, and after a six-month contract with Columbia expired, he was out of work for two years.
“I kind of starved for a little bit,” he said. “I shared a room with Peter Lorre, and we lived on a can of soup a day.”
Wilder taught himself English by listening to baseball games on the radio and going to movies, forcing himself to learn 20 new words a day. For decades, he instructed his collaborators—first Charles Brackett and later I.A.L. Diamond—to correct immediately any mistake he made in writing the language.
“Most of the refugees had a secret hope: ‘Hitler will be defeated and I will go back home,’ ” said Wilder, who became a U.S. citizen in 1939. “I never had such a thought. This was home. . . . I had a clean-cut vision: ‘This is where I am going to die.”’
In 1936, Paramount hired Wilder and teamed him with Brackett, a novelist and former New Yorker drama critic. The temperamental, often warring pair wrote 14 consecutive hits, including the innovative “Ninotchka,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Boulevard.”
Frustrated by what other directors did with his scripts, Wilder made his solo directing debut in 1942 with the romantic comedy “The Major and the Minor,” with Milland and Ginger Rogers.
“I’m not a born director,” he told Crowe. “I became a director because so many of our scripts had been screwed up.”
Paramount, Wilder once recalled, expected him to fail in his initial directing effort and thereafter stop interfering with its regular directors.
“But I was careful,” he said. “I didn’t go out to make a so-called ‘artistic success.’ I went out to make a commercial picture I wouldn’t be ashamed of.”
After that, Wilder directed all his pictures. Many critics consider “Double Indemnity” in 1944 to be the first of his major works. In the film noir classic, he cast Fred MacMurray as a corrupt insurance salesman in love with a vicious Barbara Stanwyck, with the couple murdering Stanwyck’s husband only to learn they cannot collect his insurance money.
Wilder was nominated for Academy Awards for best screenplay (along with Chandler) and director for the film, but Leo McCarey’s “Going My Way” swept the 1944 awards.
The following year, Wilder made “The Lost Weekend,” which pioneered movies about social problems. The film won Wilder his first two Oscars—for writing and directing—but not without some anxious months.
Paramount was under intense pressure to drop the completed project. Lobbyists for the liquor industry reportedly offered as much as $5 million for the print of the movie. An audience at a sneak preview in Santa Barbara laughed derisively, and some people even walked out. Paramount shelved the film indefinitely.
Wilder was so humiliated that he fled Hollywood for four months, returning to Germany to aid in the reconstruction of the German film industry, theaters and radio. It was at that time that he learned his grandmother and stepfather had been killed along with his mother at Auschwitz.
By the time Wilder returned to the U.S., Paramount had decided to release the film. It opened to critical acclaim in New York. Moviegoers packed theaters there and in California, and the film’s success was sealed.
Wilder directed a number of other pictures over the next five years, including the 1948 comedy “A Foreign Affair” and “The Emperor Waltz.”
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 (William Holden).
At a celebrity preview, Stanwyck tearfully fell to her knees in front of Swanson and kissed the hem of her gown in tribute. Louis B. Mayer, on the other hand, stormed out of the theater cursing Paramount and shouting, “We should horsewhip this Wilder, we should throw him out of this town! He has brought disgrace on the town that is feeding him!”
The film won worldwide acclaim and brought Wilder his third Oscar, for his screenplay.
In 1999, when Crowe asked him to name his favorite of the pictures he had made, Wilder mused:
“The picture maybe that has the fewest faults, obvious faults, would be ‘The Apartment.’ But I like the end result in ‘Some Like It Hot.’ It was a very successful picture. Or maybe this and ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ It [‘Sunset’] really caught them unaware. Nobody expected a picture like it. And it’s very difficult to make a picture in Hollywood about Hollywood. Because they really scrutinize you.”
Wilder came to refer to his cynical 1951 drama “Ace in the Hole,” starring Kirk Douglas as a ruthless reporter, as “the runt of my litter.” It marked his debut as a producer, and when it proved a box office failure, Paramount warned Wilder that his next film had to pay the expenses for both.
He rebounded in 1953 with “Stalag 17,” a comedy-drama starring Holden that brought in more than $10 million in its first year and was the biggest-grossing picture he ever made for Paramount. The film also won Holden his only Oscar, for best actor.
Ironically, it was “Stalag 17,” about a German prisoner-of-war camp, that caused Wilder to depart Paramount. Preparing a dubbed version for German release, the studio suggested he change the Nazi spy to a Polish prisoner of war who had sold out to the Nazis. Wilder refused and said he would leave if the studio failed to apologize. He left in 1954, but not before making the romantic comedy “Sabrina” with Audrey Hepburn, Holden and Humphrey Bogart.
Leaving Paramount didn’t dent Wilder’s winning streak. He did “The Seven Year Itch,” a romantic comedy with Marilyn Monroe; the May-December romance “Love in the Afternoon,” with Gary Cooper and Hepburn; the courtroom drama “Witness for the Prosecution,” with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton; and then, in 1959, what many consider his masterpiece, “Some Like It Hot.”
Featuring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as out-of-work musicians trying to escape Chicago gangsters by masquerading as women in an all-girl band, which included Monroe as the singer, the film grossed $14 million, the highest for a comedy up to that date.
Next came “The Apartment,” a dark New York comedy featuring Lemmon, MacLaine and MacMurray in 1960, which won Wilder triple Oscars for best film, best screenplay (with I.A.L. Diamond) and best director, and represented the zenith of his career.
“In Hollywood,” critic Pauline Kael wrote, “it is now common to hear Billy Wilder called the world’s greatest movie director.”
Kael and others, however, frequently criticized Wilder as cynical and money-hungry.
“I am a dedicated man, not after the fast buck,” he responded. “I wanted to say [in ‘The Apartment’] how corrupt we are, how money-mad we are. . . . I guess that’s the theme of all my pictures. Maybe my philosophy is cynical, but I have to be true to what I feel.”
Yet to come was his biggest box-office success, 1963’s “Irma la Douce,” a comedy about a Parisian prostitute, again starring Lemmon and MacLaine, which grossed $25 million. But despite being nominated for several Oscars, including MacLaine for best actress, the film won no major awards. Wilder was nominated in 1966 for his and Diamond’s screenplay for the biting comedy “The Fortune Cookie,” for which Matthau won a best supporting actor Oscar as a crooked lawyer. This film marked the first on-screen pairing of Lemmon and Matthau.
A man who loved being the center of attention, Wilder boasted that he was his own public relations agent and would jump fully clothed into a swimming pool for a dare or a laugh. A hypochondriac, he paced when he worked, waving one of his collection of walking sticks that he carried because of a chronic bad back. Only in his final years did he kick a four-pack-a-day smoking habit.
He enjoyed professional sports, chess, bridge and gin rummy, classical music and gourmet cooking, but hated and feared flying.
His best-known avocation unquestionably was collecting modern and contemporary art, which he pursued passionately from the beginning of his long career. In 1989, he sold 94 works by Picasso, Miro, Kirchner and others for $32.6 million.
“Whatever I made, $200 or $300 a week, I always put half or a third into a drawer for art purchases,” he said during sale previews.
“I have no villa in St. Tropez. I cut down on my ballooning in Bavaria, and I stayed away from junk bonds,” he continued. “I just buy nice things and sometimes swap them for better ones. I’ve been rather lucky in that. I bought most of the stuff a couple of weeks ahead of the big prices.”
Noting that Los Angeles had few art dealers in the 1940s or 1950s, Wilder said he went on 14-hour buying sprees when on location in New York, Paris or London. In 1945, he said, as an example of the bargains he found, he bought a George Grosz painting for a carton of cigarettes.
Wilder said he auctioned some of those paintings to make space on the walls of his apartment for other pieces in his vast collection and for pieces he wanted to buy.
“Besides, you know the cliche about being possessed by possessions,” he said. “We worried that the people in the apartment above ours would let the bathtub overflow. And insurance—I don’t have to tell you. I felt I needed a liberation from responsibility.”
But Wilder was an inveterate collector and continued to buy art after the New York auction. He sold a second collection in 1993 through the Beverly Hills gallery of his longtime friend Louis Stern.
For years after his final film, “Buddy Buddy,” starring Lemmon and Matthau, bombed in 1981, Wilder continued to write and contemplate making more movies.
“Things are always cooking in the back of my mind or in the back of a drawer,” he said in 1988. “There is never a day I don’t write something. It’s not tough to make a picture. It’s tough to make a deal.”
He explained the realities of the new Hollywood in the January 2000 Times interview: “It’s much harder to direct now. Everything’s in the hands of the money people; they dictate what has to be done. When I was making pictures, we went to the front office, told them what we wanted to do, and then we did it.”
Even when Wilder was no longer wanted for new films, he and Hollywood continued their love affair.
“I’ve been here for more than half a century,” he said in 1986 when he received the American Film Institute award, “and I’ve watched Hollywood vacillate between despair and fear. But even if they have 5 million screens . . . there’s one little detail: Who will write it, who will direct it, who will act in it?
“Relax, fellow picture-makers. We are not expendable. The bigger they get, the more powerful we get. Theirs is the kingdom; ours is the power and the glory.”
Wilder was married twice—in 1936 to Judith Coppicus Iribe, with whom he had a daughter, Victoria, and whom he divorced in 1947, and in 1949 to singer-actress Audrey Young.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by one grandchild.
Memorial services are pending.
Times staff writers Suzanne Muchnic and Susan King contributed to this report.
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