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Great Film Directors: Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder

In the pantheon of film directors, Billy Wilder is peerless, or very nearly. His career spanned nearly fifty years and included a variety of films in differing genres. With the exception of horror, Billy Wilder did it all and did it pretty damned good, too. The verbal wit that laced his films his was all Wilder. But then, what would you expect from a man who started out as a screenwriter? Wilder would help change the mindset of what it meant to be called a “filmmaker.” In all, only one Wilder directed film (Death Mills, a 22-minute short for the Army) did he not have a hand in, at least, co-writing.

The word “auteur” has become a much abused term in the film world’s lexicon. Since the French New Wave, it has been given out far too freely to directors who do not begin to deserve it. In 196o, Billy Wilder would make film history. He would become the first person to win an Academy Award for producing, writing and directing all on the same film, The Apartment. 

Wilder Award

Starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, The Apartment mixed equal parts pathos and comedy to a marvelous result. The film would receive ten Oscar nominations and win five (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Art Direction). Academy awards were seemingly a forgone conclusions when Wilder made a film. In his career, Wilder would see –

Four actors nominated for Best Actor (Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Jack Lemmon, and William Holden.  Both Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot,  The Apartment) and William Holden (Sunset Blvd, Stalag 17) were nominated for two different films.

Two actors would win Best  Actor awards (Ray Milland The Lost Weekend, William Holden Stalag 17).

Four actresses would receive Best Actress nods (Barbara Stanwyck, Audrey Hepburn, Gloria Swanson and Shirley MacLaine, who would score nominations on two separate films (The Apartment, Irma La Douce)

None would win.

Four actors would receive Best Supporting actor nominations  (Erich von Stroheim, Robert Strauss, Jack Kruschen and Walter Matthau

Matthau would be the only winner for The Fortune Cookie

Two actresses would receive Best Supporting actress nods (Nancy Olson and Elsa Lanchester)

Neither would win.

Wilder himself would be nominated 11 times for Best Original Screen play

He would win three (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd, The Apartment)

He would also garner 8 Best Director nods and win two (The Lost  Weekend, The Apartment)

Wilder Direction

Billy Wilder’s sense of cinema would always be grounded in his early work as a screenwriter. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, Wilder would eschew fancy camera tricks to focus on the story and characters

From Wikipedia;

“He avoided, especially in the second half of his career, the exuberant cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles because, in Wilder’s opinion, shots that called attention to themselves would distract the audience from the story. Wilder’s pictures have tight plotting and memorable dialogue. Despite his conservative directorial style, his subject matter often pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment.

The Wilder Legacy

Without Billy Wilder, one may be so bold as to say there might not be any Woody Allen. Wilder was deft at mixing comedy and drama. Ahead of his time, Wilder would co-write at least all of his features.  At that time, only Joseph Mankiewicz and Preston Sturges could make such a claim. What further sets Wilder apart is that only Preston Sturges could claim his material original.

But Wilder would far exceed Sturges’ output.