There are two sides to every coin. The superlative American director Billy Wilder worked the fine, serrated edge between-between dark noirs and ribald comedies, between blithe romance and sorrowful drama. Maybe he was just a realist who saw our lofty aspirations compromised, time and again, by our glaring limitations: somewhere in between is the joke and the crying shame. Wilder's early triumphs, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., were as unexpectedly bleak as his later successes, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, were comically sharp. Or were they just equally sardonic?
Born in Austria, Wilder moved to Berlin where in his mid-twenties he was prolifically penning screenplays. When things got dicey for a Jew in Germany, he moved first to Paris, then, by 1934, to Hollywood, where he assimilated rapidly. His mother had long dreamed of emigrating to the United States. and had filled the young Billy, really Samuel, with stories of Coney Island and Buffalo Bill. For a European-bred artist, Wilder had an uncanny grasp of the rhythms of American lingo and viewed social settings with an estranged but charmed distance. He saw himself foremost as a writer and put the pictures in the service of pithy storylines and breakneck banter.
Often working with collaborators, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond being two important figures, Wilder launched his Hollywood career with a screwball script for Ernest Lubitsch's Ninotchka, the brisk Greta Garbo vehicle. Then there was no stopping him: beginning with The Major and the Minor (not included in this series) in 1942, Wilder would write and direct over two dozen films, from the pointed pasting of the press in Ace in the Hole to the highly chic Sabrina, from the capitalist escapades of One, Two, Three to the needling truth of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Considered a supple but strategic director of actors, Wilder did swell things with such starry lights as William Holden, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Ray Milland, Kirk Douglas, and Barbara Stanwyck. His casts, alone, garnered seventeen Academy Award nominations for their often uncharacteristic and comedic roles. Well, let's push them aside for now and give Mr. Wilder his close-up.