Essential DVDs: Double Indemnity (1944); The Lost Weekend (1945); Sunset Boulevard (1950); Ace In The Hole (1951); Some Like It Hot (1959); The Apartment (1960)
Oscars: Best Screenplay, Best Director (The Lost Weekend, 1946); Best Screenplay (Sunset Boulevard, 1951); Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (The Apartment, 1961) ; Irving Thalberg Memorial Award (1988)
In His Own Words: “Some pictures play wonderfully to a room of eight people. I don’t go for that. I go for the masses. I go for the end effect.”
Wilder, a young screenwriter struggling to make a name amid the bohemian decadence of pre-War Berlin, heard a tap on his window. On the ledge outside he found a well-known film producer who had fled his mistress’s bed in the apartment next door when her husband arrived home unexpectedly. In exchange for his silence, Wilder extracted a contract from the hapless cuckold on the spot. Anyone with that kind of initiative is going to go far in Hollywood.
Billy Wilder was once described (reputedly by William Holden) as having, “A head full of razorblades.” It’s a wonderful phrase, one that Wilder had the good sense to steal, alluding not just to a legendarily keen mind but also to its versatility. If Wilder had made only comedies –if he’d written and directed nothing more than Some Like It Hot or The Apartment, in fact –he would still be among the immortals. As it is, his biting wit and gleeful misanthropy found a variety of triumphant outlets: ingenious WWII thriller Five Graves To Cairo (1943), peerless noir Double Indemnity (1944), dipso melodrama The Lost Weekend (1945), savagely expose Ace In The Hole (1951) and, of course, macabre masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950) to name a few.
Wilder’s career was summed up by another wag as: “Hating people for fun and profit.” A world-class cynic with a streak of self-deprecation a mile wide, he would not have disagreed. Asked his thoughts on his own films, he replied, “I loathe some of them less than others.”