Billy Wilder Biography

Billy Wilder, a filmmaker with a Midas touch, transformed an era in Hollywood with his works that are now listed in America’s Golden Age of Films. Originally planning to become a lawyer, destiny led him to journalism, which eventually drew him into the magnetic world of Hollywood. His love for writing propelled him to become a screenwriter, where he consistently delivered conventional scripts with a touch of novelty. However, Wilder’s ambition pushed him to climb the ladder and become a director as well. What set him apart from his contemporaries was his desire to expand the horizons of filmmaking in Hollywood. While others stuck to tried-and-tested formulas, Wilder sought to broaden the perspective by pushing the boundaries of acceptable content. His films, such as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard,” showcased this unique approach. However, it was “The Apartment” that truly solidified his reputation, earning him three Academy Awards in different categories. In the later stages of his career, Wilder explored the genre of humor and created comedic tales that have since been recognized as some of the funniest American films. To delve deeper into the life of this remarkable filmmaker, continue reading.

Quick Facts

  • Nick Name: Billie
  • Also Known As: Samuel Wilder
  • Died At Age: 95
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Audrey Young (1949–2002; his death), Judith Coppicus (1936–1946; divorced)
    • Father: Max Wilder
    • Mother: Eugenia Dittler
    • Siblings: William Lee Wilder
    • Children: Victoria Wilder, Vincent Wilder
  • Born Country: United States
  • Quotes By Billy Wilder
  • Directors
  • Height: 5’11” (180 cm), 5’11” Males
  • Died on: March 27, 2002
  • Place of death: Beverly Hills, California, United States
  • Ancestry: Polish American, German American, Austrian American
  • Cause of Death: Pneumonia

Childhood & Early Life

Billy Wilder was born as Samuel Wilder to Max and Eugenia Wilder. He was nicknamed Billie by his mom. His parents ran a cake shop at the Sucha Beskidzka’s train station which turned out to be a profitable venture. Later on, the family shifted base to Vienna.

In Vienna, young Wilder attained his formal education from local school. After completing his high school studies, he took to working as a journalist instead of pursuing a graduation degree. For better opportunities and wider scope, he moved to Berlin.

Career

While at Berlin, he achieved success as a writer, penning sports and crime stories for various local newspapers. He finally secured himself a permanent position at a Berlin tabloid. It was there that his fascination for films became evident. No sooner, he started working as a screenwriter.

Along with other inexperienced screenwriters, he worked on the script for the 1929 film, ‘People on Sunday’. Two years later, he single-handedly wrote the script for the film adaptation of the Erich K�stner novel ‘Emil and the Detectives’.

With Hitler’s prominence and rise to power, he shifted base to Paris. There, he made his debut as a director with the film ‘Mauvaise Graine’ in 1934. However, before the release of the film, he moved to Hollywood.

In Hollywood, he continued to pursue his love for writing by becoming a screenwriter. He collaborated with writer Charles Brackett for the film ‘Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife’ which marked the start for many more films ahead.

His first major breakthrough came in 1939 with the Academy-Award nominated film, ‘Ninotchka’. The film secured both popular and critical acclaim. Post the glorious success of ‘Ninotchka’, he came up with scripts for ‘Hold Back the Dawn’ and ‘Ball of Fire’.

He longed to direct his scripts so as to do full justice to them. The opportunity came in with the film, ‘The Majors and the Minors’ which marked his directorial debut in Hollywood.

Year 1944 marked an important year in his resume as he took on a seat behind the camera for the film, ‘Double Indemnity’. Co-written with Raymond Chandler, the movie instantly catapulted his status in Hollywood, affirming his position as a top-notch director and screenwriter. The film won several nominations including Best Director and Screenplay.

In 1945, he came up with a documentary film ‘Death Mills’ which was produced by the Psychological Warfare Department (PWD) of the United States Department of War. It was essentially aimed to educate German about the vehemence caused by Nazi regime.

Cementing his position in Hollywood, he came up with yet another Academy Award winning film, in 1945, ‘The Lost Weekend’ which was an adaptation of a Charles R. Jackson story. The movie had an off-beat theme emphasizing on alcoholism and its after effects which caused a stimulation among the audiences.

He started the decade of 1950 with the William Holden and Gloria Swanson’s starrer, ‘Sunset Boulevard’. A dark and cynical movie, it, though did average business at the box office, earned much critical acclaim. His next subsequent release was ‘Ace in the Hole’.

In the 1950s, he came up with two Broadway adaptations for the big screen, ‘Stalag 17’ and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’. Thereafter, he longed to make a slapstick comedy film out of the classic comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Though he could not realize the same, he directed a couple of comedies including, ‘The Seven Year Itch’, ‘Sabrina’, and ‘Some Like It Hot’.

Year 1960 proved to be a significant year in his life as his career graph zoomed upwards with the super successful directorial venture titled, ‘The Apartment’. The film was well received both commercially and critically so much so that it received three Academy Awards in the category of Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.

In 1961, he came up with Cold War movie titled, ‘One, Two, Three’. Subsequently, he released a string of films that gained a cult status with time, including, ‘Irma la Douce’ and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’. In 1966, he earned an Academy Award nomination for Screenplay in the film, ‘The Fortune Cookie’.

Towards the end of his career, he released several movies, ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Fedora’ and ‘Buddy Buddy’ none of which repeated the success story of his former releases.

Major Works

‘Double Indemnity’ marked a significant breakthrough in his career clinching grand reception, both commercially and critically. The movie earned seven nominations for Academy Awards.

‘Sunset Boulevard’, a dark cynical movie further expanded the range of acceptable subjects in Hollywood and proved to be a commercial and critical hit. It secured eleven nominations in Academy Awards, eventually winning three of them.

‘The Apartment’ was a grand commercial and critical hit at the box office, grossing a box office record of $25 million. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards out of which it won five.

Awards & Achievements

His excellence with the pen and ability to create magic behind the camera was duly appreciated, the twenty-one Academy Awards nominations standing as a testimony of the same. Out of these, he won six Academy Awards for Best Director for ‘The Lost Weekend’ and ‘The Apartment’, Best Screenplay for ‘The Lost Weekend’, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘The Apartment’, and Best Picture for ‘The Apartment’. Furthermore, he received Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

His large body of work was reckoned at the Golden Globe Awards as well, as he earned five awards, twice in the category of Best Picture, twice as Best Director and once as Best Screenwriter.

The Writers Guild of America twice bestowed upon him the Laurel Award, in 1957 and 1980. Furthermore, he was nominated 15 times for Best Screenplay, which he ended up winning five times.

At the Directors Guild of America, he was nominated eight times for the DGA Screen Director Award, winning once for ‘The Apartment’. Additionally, he won the DGA LifeTime Achievement Award and Preston Sturges Award.

In 1993, he received the Honorary Golden Bear at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival. Same year, he was conferred with the National Medal of Arts. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Personal Life & Legacy

He tied the nuptial knot with Judith Coppicus on December 22, 1936. The couple was blessed with twins, Victoria and Vincent, of which Vincent died shortly after birth. The couple divorced in 1946. In 1949, he remarried Audrey Young.

Health concerns constantly surfaced and caused problems towards the later days of his life. He was battling with numerous problems including cancer. He breathed his last in 2002 due to pneumonia. He was later interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles, California.

Trivia

A talented and versatile director, five of his films including, ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’, ‘The Seven Year Itch’, ‘Ninotchka’ and ‘Ball of Fire’ have been included in the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies.

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