Billy Wilder dies at 95

Writer-director was one of H'w'd's brightest minds

This article was corrected on April 1, 2002.

Viennese-reared Billy Wilder, one of Hollywood’s greatest writer-directors whose films ranged from thrillers, melodramas, comedies and romances, died Wednesday night of pneumonia at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 95.

Actor William Holden once said Wilder had a mind “full of razor blades.” His pics, such as “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like It Hot,” were sophisticated, impeccably constructed studies of human frailty, refracted through a dark mirror — even the comedies. The pics won him six Oscars (including the Thalberg) and 21 nominations.

His films, commenting acutely on American means and mores, often pushed the envelope of conventional morality. “The Lost Weekend” in 1945 gave a sympathetic look at the then-taboo subject of alcoholism; only a few years after WW II ended, “A Foreign Affair” mocked U.S. postwar efforts in Europe, and “Stalag 17” took a scabrous, often comical look at life in a POW camp.

The heroes in “Boulevard,” “The Apartment” and “Kiss Me, Stupid” were willing to do anything to get ahead. And Jack Lemmon learned to revel in a transvestite lifestyle in “Some Like It Hot,” an outrageous attitude for 1959. But audiences frequently embraced these assaults on their preconceptions because Wilder’s films featured such sharp writing and performances and such intelligent observations.

Wilder’s acerbic wit was a product of his Old World sensibility. Yet his films, mostly co-written with one of two partners, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, were the product of what critic Andrew Sarris dubbed a closet romantic.

“It’s an old Viennese tradition that comes down from (dramatist Arthur) Schnitzler,” Diamond once commented: “a Middle European attitude, a combination of cynicism and romanticism.”

The romantic fatalism melded brilliantly in such classic films as “Indemnity” (co-written with Raymond Chandler), “Sunset Boulevard,” “Lost Weekend” and “The Apartment.” The latter two films won him Oscars for his writing and directing. He also won a writing Oscar for “Sunset Boulevard.”

But there were also lighter films, such as “Ninotchka” and “Midnight” (which he co-wrote with Brackett) and later, as a director, “Sabrina” and “Love in the Afternoon,” comedies of manner in the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch (who directed “Ninotchka”), Wilder’s mentor.

He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in the town of Sucha in Galicia, Poland, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Max, who died in 1926, ran a chain of railway cafes. His mother, Eugenia, died in Auschwitz in World War II. She nicknamed her sons Billy and Willy (his older brother Wilhelm became a Hollywood producer under the name W. Lee Wilder), because they sounded American. She had lived briefly in the U.S.

Wilder grew up in Vienna, where he, too, became enamored of all things American, such as jazz and Westerns, though ironically he never made a Western. After a brief stab at higher education at the U. of Vienna, Wilder began his career as a journalist at the tabloid Die Stunde. He wrote interviews, crime and sports stories.

(His experience as a reporter later surfaced in the biting “Ace in the Hole” starring Kirk Douglas as an opportunistic, amoral newspaper writer, and in his 1974 remake of “The Front Page.”)

After moving to Berlin, he continued to work as a journalist, but was quietly writing scripts for silent films on the side. In 1929 he collaborated with Fred Zinnemann on the script for Robert Siodmak’s “Menschen am Sonntag,” which helped him land a job at Germany’s giant UFA production facility.

But as a Jew, working for pro-Nazi industrialist Alfred Hugenberg, there was little hope of a future and Wilder fled to Paris in 1933, a week after the famous Reichstag fire.

He directed his first film in Paris, the 1933 “Mauvaise Graine,” and was about to start another when he received an offer from Columbia Pictures for his script “Pam Pam” and a six-month contract at $150 a week. It took him two years to learn English.

But Wilder obviously learned the language well. In 1937, he received his first screen credit on “Music in the Air,” which starred Gloria Swanson. After co-writing (with Hy Kraft) “Champagne Waltz” for Paramount, he was offered a $250-per-week contract.

Wilder remained at Par for 17 years. Soon after his arrival he was paired with Brackett, the former theater critic for the New Yorker. The result was a number of sterling comedy scenarios including “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” “Midnight” and “Ninotchka” (for MGM), as well as a number of above-average dramas such as “Arise My Love” and “Hold Back the Dawn.”

Wilder began collaborating because he was unsure of his English, he said, but continued to partner with Brackett and, later, Diamond, because he found the process of writing “suicidally boring.”

Brackett served as producer on Wilder’s American directorial debut, the 1942 “The Major and the Minor,” a light comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. The next year, he did a 180-degree turn with “Five Graves to Cairo,” but neither pic prepared anyone for 1944’s searing “Double Indemnity,” based on James M. Cain’s novel. The quintessential film noir was one of Chandler’s few screen credits.

His next film, “The Lost Weekend,” a harrowing tale of alcoholism, won four Academy Awards for 1945, including two for Wilder, and shared the Grand Prix at the first Cannes Fest in 1946, where Ray Milland took Best Actor as “Weekend’s” booze-guzzling lead

After the war Wilder spent six months in Germany helping in the restructuring of the UFA dominated film industry. “It was like somebody opened the door to Dante’s Inferno and you’re walking through the Inferno like it’s a museum,” he recollected of the experience. “It was a very hot summer, and the smell of the corpses was everywhere.”

The memories of what he saw, and the loss of his mother, stepfather and grandmother, informed the 1948 black comedy “A Foreign Affair” starring Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich. The political satire of Americans in postwar Germany was denounced in Congress and by the Defense Dept.

That same year, he helmed “The Emperor Waltz.”

His palate became ever darker with the lacerating 1950 “Sunset Boulevard” starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim, still considered one of the best films ever made about Hollywood.

“Ace in the Hole” and “Stalag 17” were similarly cynical and bracing, but Wilder also directed several comedies in the ’50s, starting with “Sabrina” and ending with one of the great American film comedies, “Some Like It Hot.”

In between was 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch,” which featured Marilyn Monroe in the pose that has become embedded in the minds of everyone: her white dress billowing about her as she stands over a gush of air rising from a subway grate.

Also during that time he tackled the Agatha Christie drama “Witness for the Prosecution” and the biography of Charles Lindbergh, “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

Wilder’s second directing Oscar and his third writing Oscar (with his new partner Diamond) came in 1960 for the satiric drama “The Apartment,” which also earned him an Academy Award as producer.

Less successful, but highly praised, was the 1961 “One, Two Three,” which, like “The Apartment,” was a pointed commentary on American capitalism and which dared to mock the source of America’s top source of anxiety, the Cold War. In 1963, his “Irma la Douce,” a nonmusical adaptation of the stage tuner, was one of the first Hollywood films to take a lighthearted look at the world of prostitutes.

By the mid ’60s, the industry had changed. Through the end of the 1970s, Wilder continued to make interesting and quirky films such as “The Fortune Cookie,” “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” “Avanti” and “Fedora,” but they did not compare to his vintage work and did not capture the era’s zeitgeist. His last film was the 1981 dark comedy “Buddy, Buddy,” starring Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with whom he’d previously worked in “Fortune” and “Front Page.”

“I’ve been floundering,” Wilder admitted in 1982 when he was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “People say, ‘It wasn’t your year.’ Well, it hasn’t been my decade. I guess I lost contact with the audience.”

But more than that, Wilder had become apprehensive about catering to the “blockbuster” mentality that had overtaken Hollywood and his lack of desire to make films on that basis.

“It was more fun to make pictures (in the old studio system). Today it is bloodletting, everybody looking over your shoulder … We had a better time then.”

Ever the perfectionist, in 1991 he abandoned his autobiography after writing 620 pages. “It’s not really what I want,” Wilder said.

Still, his name continued to be attached to film projects throughout the decade, and he continued to dream of making another movie, even after Diamond’s death in 1988. That same year, Wilder received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement.

Three years later, the Writers Guild and Directors Guild also commended him for his 60 years as a filmmaker with the Preston Sturges Award. At the ceremony he acknowledged that he would rather be remembered as a writer than as a director. “I became a director because I wanted to get the utmost of the script on the screen,” he confessed.

Known in Hollywood as a resident wit and a consummate art collector, Wilder was married for 11 years to Judith Copicus Iribe starting in 1937. They had a daughter, Victoria. Shortly after the divorce, in 1949, he married a young actress and singer, Audrey Young. The couple resided in a large apartment on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, the home of Wilder’s noted art collection — some of which was destroyed in a fire several years ago.

His wife of 53 years, Audrey, told Daily Variety ‘s Army Archerd “anybody who was around him learned something if only by osmosis.”

There will be no funeral. A memorial will be planned for later in the year.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this story.)

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