LOS ANGELES (AP) – Ever the contrarian, Oscar-winning filmmaker Billy Wilder made a career of romanticizing cynicism.
Whether creating comedies, dramas, thrillers or mysteries, the Austrian-born writer-director, who died Wednesday night at 95, examined the ways that otherwise good people sacrifice their humanity for fame, money or sex.
The result was some of the finest movies ever made, including “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.”
“His characters ran the spectrum as far as their moral standards were concerned, but they were all human beings and therefore relatable,” said director Ron Howard. “And that made the movies very, very entertaining.”
Wilder's obsession with the dark side of human nature perhaps reflected his experiences as a Jew fleeing Europe during Hitler's rise to power. He escaped to Paris in 1933, but his mother, grandmother and stepfather died at Auschwitz.
His career flourished in the United States, and as co-writer, director and producer of the 1960 film “The Apartment,” Wilder collected three Oscars, the only person to do so for one film until Frances Ford Coppola won three for 1974's “The Godfather Part II.” James L. Brooks later did it for “Terms of Endearment” and James Cameron for “Titanic.”
Wilder had also won an Oscar in 1951 for co-writing “Sunset Boulevard” and collected two others in 1946 for co-writing and directing “The Lost Weekend.” Other hits included “Double Indemnity,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “Witness for the Prosecution.”
“His movies are a worldwide language of love, intelligence and sparkling wit. To any fan of film, or any student of how a great life is lived, all roads lead to Billy Wilder,” said Cameron Crowe, director of “Jerry Maguire” and “Vanilla Sky” and author of the 2001 book “Conversations with Wilder.”
Wilder's actors also frequently won Oscars for their hard-bitten portrayals: Ray Milland as the unremitting alcoholic in “The Lost Weekend,” William Holden as the suspected prison-camp traitor in “Stalag 17,” Walter Matthau as an insurance cheater in “The Fortune Cookie.”
Some of the stars weren't always easy to work with, Wilder learned.
After directing Marilyn Monroe in her two best comedies, “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot,” he said he would never again work with the chronically tardy star.
“I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and my accountant, and they tell me I am too old and too rich to go through this again,” he said.
Wilder, who began his film career in Europe, arrived in Hollywood in 1934, knowing only 100 words of English. His breakthrough came in 1938 when he teamed with Charles Brackett, a polished, erudite member of New York's literary establishment.
The pair collaborated for 12 years, producing such scripts as “Midnight,” “Hold Back the Dawn,” “Bluebeard's Eighth Wife” and the Greta Garbo comedy “Ninotchka.” Wilder also wrote for 30 years with I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond.
Unsure of his English – he spoke with an accent after six decades in America – Wilder always used a writing partner.
Unhappy with the way other directors treated his scripts, he began directing his own movies with “The Major and the Minor,” a 1942 comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Milland.
Then came 1944's “Double Indemnity.” The film noir classic cast Fred McMurray against type as an insurance agent who schemes with a rich woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck, to kill her elderly husband.
The movie was a significant hit for Paramount Pictures and is notable for being a crime film whose protagonists were actually the villains. Notorious bad-guy actor Edward G. Robinson, also playing against type, was the investigator who unraveled the plot.
Wilder followed that with “The Lost Weekend” in 1945, a bleak portrait of a man plagued by alcoholism. Then came 1950's “Sunset Boulevard,” a dark tale of a fading silent-film star played by Gloria Swanson who begins an affair with a poor, young writer, played by Holden, who is after her money. Their painful relationship culminates in murder.
Wilder films also became known for their quotable closing lines. In “Some Like It Hot,” for example, when Joe E. Brown learns the woman he has been courting – Jack Lemmon in drag – is actually a man, he says, “Well, nobody's perfect!”
“He always wanted to give you a little piece of candy to go out with,” said George Sidney, 89, director of 1951's “Showboat” and 1964's “Viva Las Vegas.”
Wilder's career peaked with “The Apartment,” a cynical tale of corporate corruption in which Lemmon played a cowardly corporate drone who lends his apartment to company executives for trysts with secretaries. Shirley MacLaine co-starred as the naive victim of a lying boss.
“He will write and direct another masterpiece in heaven,” MacLaine said Thursday. “I learned more from him than anyone else.”
Wilder worked for another 20 years after “The Apartment,” but except for “Irma La Douce” in 1963 he never duplicated his previous success.
His later films included “One, Two, Three,” “Kiss Me, Stupid,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” “Avanti!” “The Front Page” and “Fedora.” His last film was “Buddy Buddy” in 1981 with Lemmon and Matthau.
He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in the small town of Sucha, 100 miles east of Vienna. Wilder, who grew up obsessed with American cowboy and adventure films, came to the United States after getting an offer to write scripts for Columbia Pictures for $150 a week.
A first marriage to California socialite Judith Iribe ended in 1947 after nine years; they had a daughter, Victoria. In 1949, Wilder married a former starlet and band singer, Audrey Young.
For many years they lived in a spacious penthouse apartment in Westwood, surrounded by works of Picasso, Miro and other masters. In 1989, more than 80 items from his collection were sold at auction for more than $30 million.
He is survived by his wife and daughter.
Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press