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Billy Wilder was a true original. Like many of the directors of his day, Wilder tackled a variety of genres with ease. But unlike many of those colleagues, Wilder saw himself as a writer first, director second. Wilder directed films in Hollywood from 1942 until 1981, making two films that won Best Picture and earning three Oscars for his screenplays.
Before Wilder began his filmmaking career, he was a journalist, a profession that would have a vital role in his films. He wet his toe in the film world with People On Sunday, a breathtaking 1930 silent film made with remarkable talent who would all become huge players in Hollywood, like Robert Siodmack, Fred Zinnemann and Wilder. While it's a simple tale about a trio of friends going for a day at the beach, you can't help but see a hint of Wilder's wit in the tale.
When the Nazis took power in Germany, Wilder first moved to France and then arrived in the U.S. in 1933. Soon, he met Charles Brackett, his first long-term writing partner. The two crafted magnificent scripts, including Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka in 1939 (which earned his first Oscar nomination). In 1942, he started his directing career with The Major and The Minor. While that is one of the classics of comedy and his follow-up, 1943's Five Graves To Cairo is good too, his first great film is 1944's Double Indemnity.
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity is the definitive film-noir and in some ways the definitive Wilder picture. It pushes the boundaries of Hollywood's acceptance of sex as far as it would go in 1944 and features some of the greatest dialogue ever written. Venom spews from every word Stanwyck and MacMurray say to each other. Just listen to these words:
While Double Indemnity failed to win Best Picture, his next - The Lost Weekend - did. That's a great film, too, but let's face it – Ray Milland as an alcoholic writer pales in comparison to Wilder and Brackett's greatest creation: Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson. I put Sunset Boulevard (1950) on my list of greatest films ever made and if you ask me to do that in another 10 years, I'll still put it there. The sheer magic and genius of the film can't be overstated. It's like Wilder told Hollywood, “Thanks for the career, but here's how you can destroy it.”
While the rest of the 1950s was filled with plenty of great ups (Stalag 17, Ace in the Hole) and downs (The Seven Year Itch), I'll fast forward to 1959's Some Like It Hot. By this time, Wilder found his next writing partner – I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he would work with for the rest of his career. Diamond and Wilder first worked on the charming Love in the Afternoon, but when they made Some Like It Hot, it was clear that they worked well together. It's one of the funniest films ever made. For all the attention paid Marilyn Monroe, I beg you to keep an eye on Tony Curtis the next time you watch this. What he's doing is remarkable.
Their next collaboration was Wilder's second Best Picture winner, 1960's The Apartment. The tale of C.C. Baxter trying to break out from the system when he falls for Fran Kubelik won audiences then and still does today. Jack Lemmon gives his career-defining performance here, proving that Wilder wasn't all about the words. He really got fantastic actors to breathe life into his characters.
Of the post-Apartment pictures, The Fortune Cookie (1966) is the best. It's the Walter Matthau show all the way and he is brilliant. His role lead to him winning an Oscar. However, the film's script is purely Wilder and Diamond at the top of their game, squeezing in social commentary with amazing humor.
Wilder and Diamond got into such a groove that it might be easy to write off the rest of his career as repetitive. His comedies got long – suddenly Irma La Deuce (1963) becomes a bloated, 150-minute comedy. Even Avanti! (1972), which has flashes of Lemmon brilliance, has too much material. Then there's Kiss Me Stupid (1964), which is such a misfire despite all that talent. I'll admit that I've missed a few of his later ones, mostly because I don't want to believe that he made more than a few bad movies. But then again, “Nobody's perfect,” including Wilder.
As if you can't tell, Billy Wilder is without a doubt in my Top 5 of best directors of all time. Not just because of the accolades, but just for the sheer entertainment his films bring. He never made 'art' films or tried to be visually stunning, although there are some fantastic shots in Sunset Boulevard or The Apartment. Still, he learned what so few filmmakers today know. If you don't have a good script, you don't have a good movie.
I had planned to write this before hearing of Roger Ebert's death. Ebert liked Wilder too, and wrote about the timelessness of his films in his Great Movie review of The Apartment. I could not agree with him more.