It’s the birthday of director, producer, and screenwriter Billy Wilder, born in Vienna, Austria (1906). His real name was Samuel, but his mother called him “Billy” because of her fascination with the legendary hero Buffalo Bill. In Vienna, Wilder spent a lot of time watching American Western, comedy, and adventure films. He left Vienna in 1927 for a job as a reporter in Berlin, and eventually found work as a scriptwriter on more than a dozen German films. But when the credits for What Women Dream, his 14th film, rolled by, the names of the two scriptwriters, Franz Schulz and Billy Wilder, were missing. As Jews, they had been expunged from the program.
Wilder left Germany for Paris. In 1934, he arrived in Hollywood with 11 dollars in his pocket. His big break came when Paramount studios paired him with the writer Charles Brackett. Together they wrote scripts for such films as Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950), which won Wilder an Academy Award and included the famous line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” His later films, many written with I.A.L. Diamond, include Love in the Afternoon (1957), The Apartment (1961), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974).
Wilder began directing pictures because, he said, he was tired of other directors botching up his scripts. Asked if it was important for a director to know how to write, Wilder replied, “No, but it helps if he knows how to read.”
Two of Wilder’s most successful films starred Marilyn Monroe: The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like it Hot (1959). Over the years, he directed some of the greatest Hollywood stars, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Shirley MacLaine, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau. In 1986, the American Film Institute awarded him the Life Achievement Award, and at the 1988 Academy Awards, he was given the Irving G. Thalberg Award. He died in 2002.
Wilder said: “An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark — that is critical genius.”