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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,639

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This is the grave of Billy Wilder.

Born in 1906 in what is today Sucha, Poland, close to the modern border with Slovakia, Samuel Wilder grew up in a Jewish family that was upwardly mobile. His parents ran a series of train station cafes. Then they moved to Krakow where his father managed a hotel and then onto Vienna. Wilder had no interest in the family business. Instead, he liked art and he liked show business. Now that he was in Vienna, he could meet real acts coming through on European tours. Working as a journalist by 1926, he met Paul Whiteman on tour with his big band. Wilder got an interview. They hit it off and became friends. In fact, Whiteman was like, why don’t you come to Berlin with me and you can meet some real people. He did and that worked out very well for our young future director. He had to make a living in Berlin, sure, so he got a job as a taxi dancer, basically a guy who women could pay by the dance as a dance partner in ballroom dancing. Women did this sometimes too.

By 1929, Wilder had fairly consistent work in Berlin as a journalist, working both the crime and sports beats. A big fan of the movies, he also started dabbling in screenwriting. There were a lot of these guys in Berlin–young men trying to make it in the films and in the right kind of artistic milieu to make it happen (as for actually living in the Berlin of that time, well, maybe not so great). So he worked with other future emigres to Hollywood Fred Zinneman, Edgar Ulmer, and Robert Siodmak to make People on Sunday, which came out in 1930. He then wrote a bunch of movies over the next few years, working in a broad set of genres, which he did throughout his long career.

Wilder got out of Berlin as soon as Hitler took power, moving to Paris. However, his family did not and in fact his mother, grandmother, and stepfather all died in the Holocaust. Wilder didn’t stay in Paris long, moving quickly to Hollywood. He worked as a screenwriter in his early years in Hollywood, most notably being the co-writer with Charles Brackett (a frequent collaborator) on Ninotchka, which Ernst Lubitsch directed to a major success in 1939. Wilder got an Academy Award nomination for that.

Given his success as a writer, it didn’t take too long before Wilder was able to get behind the camera for his own pictures and they were successful immediately. His first was The Major and the Minor in 1942 with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. It was pretty well-received but it was Double Indemnity in 1944 that made Wilder a power player in Hollywood. It’s such a brilliant film. I always love Barbara Stanwyck and this might be her greatest role. Fred MacMurray was no great actor, but he’s perfect as the idiot insurance inspector who gets wrapped around her finger. Then there’s Edward G. Robinson, who is great as the crusty old insurance inspector who knows something’s up and slowly starts to figure it out.

Wilder also did work for the federal government as part of its propaganda efforts during the war. He agreed to make a German language film to be used after the war to educate them on just what the Nazis had done during the Holocaust. I have not seen Death Mills, and I do not want to either, having seen too much footage from the camps over the years. I can only imagine how important this was for Wilder given that he didn’t know if his family was alive or dead and of course it was the latter.

After the war, it was just a period of incredible creativity for Wilder. 1947’s The Lost Weekend was the first major Hollywood picture to seriously explore alcoholism. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Wilder won Best Director. Then in 1950, it was a little film called Sunset Boulevard, simply one of the all-time classics. It did not win Best Picture, but it did win Best Original Screenplay. Then there was Ace in the Hole, an underrated film with Kirk Douglas. You had Stalag 17, for which William Holden won Best Actor. You had the excellent Sabrina, which really demonstrates Bogart’s range since that was not the kind of role someone would have expected of him. Audrey Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress as well for that. Then he directed Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, which includes the iconic scene of her dress being blown up by the subway grate.

And there are so many more! In 1957 alone, he released three films–one a biopic of Charles Lindbergh with Jimmy Stewart (I wonder how Wilder felt about doing a film about a Nazi sympathizer), Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier, and Audrey Hepburn, and Witness for the Prosecution, with Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. That’s just ridiculous! And all three films are so different too.

Oh yeah, then there was Some Like It Hot, another of the all-time comedies. Oh and then The Apartment, a truly lovable film. That film had a mere 10 Academy Award nominations and Wilder won three himself–Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay. Unbelievable.

Now, I guess you can say that later Wilder wasn’t quite what earlier Wilder was, and OK, but that’s an impossibly high bar. He spent the 60s and 70s merely directed good to very good films instead of all-time classics. One, Two, Three with James Cagney was well-received. Irma la Douce is minimum a worthy film. He then went controversial with a film that was open about sex with Kiss Me, Stupid. Puritans like Times reviewer Bosley Crowther were outraged by the film for all that dirty, dirty sex. Wilder got a final Academy Award nomination for The Fortune Cookie, which I haven’t seen. My favorite of his later films is The Front Page, which is not a great film or anything, but is a worthy adaptation of the play and a classic Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau collaboration.

Wilder’s last film was Buddy Buddy in 1981. But he lived all the way until 2002, dying at the age of 95. Later in life, he stated how much appreciated Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a topic that affected him greatly and I imagine it must have been very hard for him to watch it.

Billy Wilder is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

There is even more to say about Wilder, but we can leave it for comments.

Wilder won Best Director for the first time in 1946. If you would like this series to visit other Oscar winners from that year, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joan Crawford, who won Best Actress for Mildred Pierce, is in Hartsdale, New York and Charles Brackett, Wilder’s frequent collaborator who split the Best Screenplay award with him that year, is in Saratoga Springs, New York. Incidentally, we’ve already covered Anne Revere, who won Best Supporting Actress for National Velvet. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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