Billy Wilder Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Billy Wilder 1906–

(Born Samuel Wilder) Austrian-born American director and screenwriter.

Wilder is known primarily for comedies which display a dark side of humor and human nature. Wilder's filmmaking philosophy emphasizes the importance of the script, and his narrative skill is more evident than his visual talent. For this reason, Wilder is often overlooked by critics who think his biting satire overly clever and patently "Hollywood."

Wilder worked in Austria as a sports reporter before moving to Berlin. His journalistic love of detail is evident in his films. In 1929, Wilder was hired as a scriptwriter for the film Menschen am Sonntag and continued to write in Germany until Hitler came into power. In 1933, Wilder moved to Paris, where he wrote and co-directed Mauvaise Graine. The sale of another script financed Wilder's move to Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

While at Paramount, Wilder wrote with Charles Brackett. Under the tutelage of director Ernst Lubitsch, they cowrote elegant, sophisticated comedies. These operettas, as they were known, are noted for their witty double entendres and their use of masquerade and deception. Wilder's first solo project, The Major and the Minor, continued in the Lubitsch vein. In his next films, Wilder developed an increasingly black form of comedy. Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity both display tendencies of the film noir genre; they also graphically depict depraved aspects of human character. However, critics feel that his cynicism is often superficial, and that Wilder accepts Hollywood's need for a happy ending.

Sunset Boulevard marked the end of Hollywood's "golden age" as well as Wilder's collaboration with Charles Brackett. The film itself is a tale of endings. The lives Sunset Boulevard depicts do not merely end—they disintegrate. Wilder's choice of faded film stars to play roles reflecting their lives and the film's unabashed candor in dissecting their failings result in a work considered by many to be a definitive study of Hollywood.

Wilder's talent for farce is best displayed in Some Like It Hot. A fast-paced tale of men masquerading as women to avoid a gangland execution, Some Like it Hot is considered a tribute to human naivete. It is in this film that Wilder most clearly demonstrates his ability to direct actors. By casting Marilyn Monroe as a beautiful loser, he created a surprisingly insightful portrait of an otherwise stereotypical sex doll.

It appears that Wilder's traditional directorial style is not suited to Hollywood's new trends. His reputation as a filmmaker of overriding cynicism has limited his appeal: however, his gift for satire remains undisputed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)