One of Hollywood's most consistent and enduring filmmakers, Billy Wilder was also among its most daring. In feature after feature, in a wide variety of styles and genres, he explored the taboo subjects of the day with insight, wit, and trenchant cynicism; adultery, alcoholism, prostitution -- no topic was too controversial or too racy for Wilder's films. Unlike the majority of Hollywood's other historically provocative voices, however, he was a major commercial success as well as a critical favorite, with two of his features garnering Best Picture Oscars and numerous others honored with various Academy nominations. Sophisticated and acerbic, his intricate narratives, sparkling dialogue, and painterly visuals combined to illuminate the darker impulses of modern American society with rare brilliance.
He was born Samuel Wilder in Sucha, Austria. After first studying law, he began a career as a journalist with a Vienna newspaper, later relocating to Berlin as a reporter for the city's largest tabloid. By 1929, he was working as a screenwriter, often collaborating with director Robert Siodmak. He swiftly became one of the German film industry's most prolific and sought-after writers, but Adolf Hitler's 1933 rise to power effectively brought his career to a halt as Wilder, a Jew, was forced to flee for his life.
His first stop was France, where in 1934 he made his debut behind the camera, co-directing Mauvaise Graine with Alexander Esway. He soon landed in the United States, settling in Hollywood to begin his work anew. After moving in with Peter Lorre, Wilder set about learning English, eventually gaining entry into the American film industry with a 1934 adaptation of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Music in the Air, directed by Joe May and starring Gloria Swanson. He worked on a number of other films including 1935's The Lottery Lover and 1937's Champagne Waltz prior to forging a writing partnership with Charles Brackett on 1938's That Certain Age. The Wilder/Brackett team quickly emerged as one of Hollywood's most successful pairings, with credits including Mitchell Leisen's 1939 Midnight, the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch classic Ninotchka, and Howard Hawks' stellar 1941 effort Ball of Fire, winning widespread acclaim for their distinctively sophisticated touch.
Ultimately, Wilder's success as a writer also allowed him the opportunity to direct, and he bowed in 1942 with the Ginger Rogers vehicle The Major and the Minor. The wartime thriller Five Graves to Cairo followed in 1943, and the next year Wilder helmed his first classic, the masterful film noir Double Indemnity. Even more powerful was its follow-up, 1945's The Lost Weekend, a remarkably gritty and realistic portrayal of alcoholism which won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (for Wilder and Brackett), and Best Actor (Ray Milland).
Wartime duties kept Wilder out of the filmmaking arena for several years, and he did not direct another film before 1948's The Emperor Waltz. Its follow-up, A Foreign Affair, earned the wrath of reviewers over its blackly comic treatment of life in postwar Berlin, but it was later reappraised as one of his stronger efforts. The 1950 Sunset Boulevard, on the other hand, was hailed as a classic immediately upon release, and the tale of a faded movie star (Swanson) -- the final screenplay from the Wilder/Brackett team -- went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The bitter The Big Carnival followed in 1951, with the wartime dramatic comedy Stalag 17 winning star William Holden a Best Actor Oscar two years later. Upon completing the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina, Wilder directed 1955's The Seven Year Itch, the first of his films to star Marilyn Monroe, and after a trio of 1957 efforts -- Love in the Afternoon (the first of many projects with new writing partner I.A.L. Diamond), the Charles Lindbergh biography The Spirit of St. Louis, and Witness for the Prosecution -- he closed out a decade of sustained excellence with the classic 1959 sex farce Some Like It Hot. The Apartment (1960) was the second of Wilder's movies to garner a Best Picture Oscar, and was followed a year later by One, Two, Three, which featured the final starring role of Jimmy Cagney.
In comparison to the prolific brilliance of the previous two decades, Wilder's work during the 1960s frequently failed to measure up to his finest work, as the dark edginess of his halcyon years increasingly gave way to sentimentality. In 1963, Irma La Douce took a rare beating from critics, with the next year's Kiss Me, Stupid! faring no better. His 1966 The Fortune Cookie was a considerable return to form, but apart from a writing credit on the 1967 spoof Casino Royale, Wilder's name was missing from the screen for the remainder of the decade, and only in 1970 did he return with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. After 1972's Avanti!, Wilder's pace continued to dwindle during the 1970s, with only two more features, 1974's The Front Page and 1978's Fedora, issued during the remainder of the decade. With the release of 1981's Buddy Buddy, he announced his retirement from filmmaking. In 1986, he was honored with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, and two years later the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon him its Irving G. Thalberg Award.