By Maureen Lee Lenker
Billy Wilder remains one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood. A writer-director who excelled at hysterical comedy, farce, and pitch black noir, Wilder carefully treaded the line between studio system maestro and utterly unique auteur. He had that rare ability to craft films that were both entertaining and provocative; never once did he make a picture that didn’t have something to say or satirize. Whether he was indicting Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard, sending up Madison Avenue in The Apartment, criticizing journalists in Ace in the Hole, or using sex farce to make a broader statement about gender, Wilder always pushed the boundaries of cinema to satirize American morality and values.
Wilder immigrated to Hollywood in 1933, escaping Germany in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. He had been working in the German film industry as a writer. Despite knowing no English when he first arrived, Wilder quickly found work in Hollywood thanks to fellow German and Austrian émigrés. He made a name for himself writing comedies like Ninotchka and Ball of Fire. Once Wilder found success as a screenwriter, he transitioned into directing and producing.
Wilder not only crafted some of the most memorable and beloved films of the 20th century, but he also played a hand in developing talent into Hollywood icons. It is Wilder who cemented the Audrey Hepburn image in Sabrina; Wilder who saw more than just pretty boy good looks in William Holden; and Wilder who created the singularly most memorable image of Marilyn Monroe, clad in a white dress, standing over a warm grate in The Seven Year Itch. Here are six Wilder films we love...
6. Stalag 17 (1953)
Many of Billy Wilder’s films were notable for their pitch-black senses of humor and a caustic cynicism – Stalag 17 is the epitome of that Wilder signature. He shocked audiences with this 1953 tale of POW’s for daring to depict soldiers as in-fighting, complex, even cowardly men, rather than the preferred Hollywood representation of stoic, brave patriots. William Holden won an Oscar for his work as J.J. Sefton, a POW who is suspected of being an informer to German guards because of his cynical actions as a black-marketeer. Though surprisingly, Holden did not like the character and delivered the shortest Oscar acceptance speech in history, merely, “Thank you.” Sefton must embark on a dangerous quest to prove that he’s not an informer by finding out who the real culprit is before his fellow men vent their frustrations on him. Never before had such a cynical, brutal picture of war and American troops been brought to the screen. The studios expected it to fail, but American audiences ate it up.
5. Sabrina (1954)
Wilder crafted his own Cinderella story when he decided to bring the play Sabrina Fair to the big screen as a vehicle for Audrey Hepburn. Already a rising star for her Oscar-winning work in Roman Holiday, Hepburn solidified her image as a gamine fashion icon full of elegance and grace with the role of Sabrina. Wilder had the foresight to let her pursue her own aims and secure the talents of Hubert Givenchy for her wardrobe. Here again Wilder works with his favorite leading man of the 1950s, William Holden, giving him a sparkling role as the handsome playboy David Larrabee. Holden as David vies with his older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) for Sabrina’s affections. In a rare turn for his work, Wilder crafts a delightful fairy-tale full of romance and lush fashion and almost entirely lacking in cynicism. It was a difficult project for him – he was writing the script while shooting and even had to ask Hepburn to feign illness on set to buy him more time to write.
4. Double Indemnity (1944)
Just four years into the noir craze of the 1940's, Wilder nearly perfected it with Double Indemnity – a tale of an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) drawn into a love affair and murder scheme by the heartless Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Based on a James M. Cain novella, Wilder embarked on his first thriller, co-writing the screenplay with noted hard-boiled fiction author Raymond Chandler. Audiences love to remember Fred MacMurray for his wholesome “My Three Sons” image, but Wilder exploited MacMurray’s darker side for cinematic gold in films like Double Indemnity and The Apartment. It’s impossible not to get a little thrill every time he says the words, “Baby.” Stanwyck has never looked sexier (or more tacky) than she does in her blonde wig here, and she plays the part of the femme fatale with delicious aplomb. She was quite nervous to accept the role, as she had largely played more sympathetic characters prior to this point.
3. The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder sent up Madison Avenue advertising agencies and early 1960s sexual mores with The Apartment. It’s a tale of an employee (Jack Lemmon) looking to get ahead by loaning out his bachelor pad to his bosses for their extra-marital trysts. He hits a snag when one of the gals in question turns out to be his crush, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). The film is the perfect blend of bittersweet romance and satirical commentary with an ending that many consider near perfect. It’s not a happily-ever-after, but a realistic, warm, and reassuring look at two lost souls finding each other – “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” Fran’s predilection for playing gin rummy came from MacLaine’s own experiences playing the card game with the Rat Pack (yes, that Rat Pack). The film became the last black and white movie to win Best Picture until nostalgia-fest The Artist won the Oscar in 2011. It’s inspired countless other projects since it debuted, most notably the television show Mad Men.
2. Some Like it Hot (1959)
“Nobody’s perfect,” but Some Like it Hot might just be a perfect film. This 1920’s-set tale of two jazz musicians who disguise themselves as women to escape gangsters hot on their tail is truly one of the funniest movies ever made. The American Film Institute even named it NUMBER ONE on their list of the “100 Funniest Movies Ever Made.” Marilyn Monroe gives a touchingly hilarious performance as a singer who always gets the “fuzzy end of the lollipop” when it comes to men. Wilder broke boundaries with his tale of cross-dressing that ends with Jack Lemmon engaged to Joe E. Brown. Transgressive at the time, it’s become a comedy hit and film years ahead of its time. It treated the notion of cross-dressing and gender issues with sensitivity and a sense of humor – something Hollywood rarely gets right even today. Tony Curtis got the chance to imitate his screen hero Cary Grant as millionaire “Shell Oil Junior.” The film only won an Oscar for costume design for its hilarious take on Lemmon and Curtis in drag, but it remains an iconic classic.
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Few groups are as hard on Hollywood as Hollywood itself. Sunset Boulevard offers a searing portrait of what Hollywood does to its own, the costs of fame, and the horrific future that awaits actresses who dare to age. The film follows Joe Gillis (William Holden) as he sells his soul to aging screen siren Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) for a warm bed and some pocket money. Wilder made the film even more bittersweet by casting real silent film star Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond and populating the picture with other real-life Hollywood figures like Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, and German director Erich von Stroheim as Desmond’s butler Max. The film was nominated for eleven Oscars and won three (famously, Swanson was nominated alongside Judy Holliday (who won) for Born Yesterday and Bette Davis in All About Eve). It helped launch Holden to legitimate stardom as more than just a pretty face. Sunset Boulevard remains one of the darkest, most indelible portraits of Hollywood and is considered one of the greatest films of all time by numerous cinematic entities.
Whether he was doing hysterical farce, swoon-worthy romance, or darkest noir, Wilder always seemed to manage to craft a masterpiece.