Cinema and Media Studies Billy Wilder
by
Nancy E. Friedland, Ila Tyagi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0234

Introduction

Billy Wilder (b. 1906–d. 2002) was a writer-director who was responsible for many classics of the Hollywood studio era. Famous for his mordant wit, he was born Samuel Wilder to a Jewish family in a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now part of Poland. His mother, who loved American popular culture, nicknamed him “Billie” after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (Wilder later changed the spelling). He worked as a journalist and screenwriter in Vienna and Berlin until 1933, when Hitler’s rise to power prompted him to flee to Paris. Fluent in French, Wilder continued writing scripts and even co-directed Mauvaise Graine (Bad Seed, 1933), a film about a band of young car thieves shot on a shoestring budget. Joe May, a director Wilder had known from his days at the UFA movie studio in Berlin, was by this time producing movies in Hollywood for Columbia. Wilder sent him a story idea and was hired by the studio, arriving in the United States knowing only a few words in English. He shared a room with Peter Lorre, a fellow member of Southern California’s German-speaking émigré community, and listened to American radio every day. As he gradually acquired the language, Columbia paired him with a writing partner: Charles Brackett, the Harvard-educated son of a state senator. Brackett and Wilder’s first script together was for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, one of Wilder’s idols and a key influence on Wilder’s own body of work. The Brackett-Wilder team produced fifteen films over a dozen years (1938–1950). It was the first of two fruitful collaborations for Wilder. After he and Brackett parted ways with Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder joined forces with Romanian-born screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond to write twelve films during the period 1957–1981. Wilder turned to directing with 1942’s The Major and the Minor, determined to protect his scripts from tampering by other directors and actors. He went on to direct such genre-defining works as Double Indemnity (1944) (from a screenplay he co-wrote with Raymond Chandler), The Lost Weekend (1945), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960). Over the course of his career, Wilder received six Oscars (out of a total of twenty-one nominations) for writing, directing, and producing. He died of pneumonia at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of ninety-five.

Reference Works

The works included here provide excellent starting points for research. Armstrong 2002 and Pendergast and Pendergast 2000 both outline biographical information and provide useful career overviews. They include bibliographies and filmographies. The Media Resources Center at the University of California at Berkeley offers an extensive bibliography on works held in the university’s library collection. Seidman 1977 is an essential bibliography for works on Wilder published prior to 1977. Thomson 2010 is a critical assessment of the director’s multinational career, listing not just Wilder’s American films but his French and German ones as well.

  • Armstrong, Richard. “Great Directors: Billy Wilder.” Senses of Cinema no. 20 (2002).

    E-mail Citation »

    Senses of Cinema is an online journal publishing on a wide range of topics related to the medium. This 2002 entry for its “Great Directors” feature provides an overview of Wilder’s career, breaking it down by decade and identifying the main themes of each of his films. The article also includes a filmography, bibliography, and links to other web resources.

  • Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, eds. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Detroit: St. James, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    This multivolume work provides surveys of directors and individual films. The director entries include filmographies and bibliographies collecting writings both about and by the directors themselves. The full set includes entries for Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond, and several of Wilder’s best-known films.

  • Seidman, Steve. The Film Career of Billy Wilder: A Reference Publication in Film. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    This annotated, comprehensive bibliography on works published pre-1977 is essential for researching the life and career of the director. Included are works on biographical background, critical works, writings about Wilder from 1944–1977, film reviews, and archival resources.

  • Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York: Knopf, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Thomson’s reference guide amasses his trenchant summaries of thousands of films, actors, directors, and other industry players. The entry on Wilder lists the films he worked on in Germany, France, and the United States. It also touches on biographical details, such as the director’s valuable art collection and his struggle with obsolescence late in his career.

  • University of California Berkeley Media Resources Center.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though limited to the university’s library holdings, this bibliography nevertheless provides an extensive listing of book-length works, chapters in books, and journal articles on Wilder and individual films. The bibliography is partially annotated and provides full text access to UC users for many of its entries.

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