Billy Wilder, 1906-2002: He Made Movies People Will Never Forget

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I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA.  Today we tell about Billy Wilder.  He was the director of some of the greatest American movies.

Many experts say that Billy Wilder changed the history of American movies.  He is often called the best movie maker Hollywood has ever had.  He was known for making movies that offered sharp social comment and adult sexual situations.  Wilder was one of the first directors to do this.

Between the middle nineteen thirties and the nineteen eighties, Billy Wilder made almost fifty movies.  During that time he received more than twenty nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  He won six of the Oscar awards.  His movies have been seen by people around the world.  Wilder made famous movies like "Sunset Boulevard", "Some Like It Hot", and "Double Indemnity."  He also directed "The Lost Weekend", "The Apartment", and "The Seven Year Itch."

Samuel Wilder was born in nineteen-oh-six in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His birthplace is now part of Poland.  His mother had enjoyed spending several years in the United States when she was young.  So she called him Billy because she thought it sounded American.

Billy Wilder started law school in Vienna, Austria.  Then he decided not to become a lawyer.  Instead, he began reporting for a Vienna newspaper.  By the nineteen twenties, he was writing movies in Germany.

However, the Nazis had risen to power in the nation.  Wilder was Jewish, and he recognized that he had no future in Nazi Germany.  In nineteen thirty-three, he went to Paris.  There he directed a movie for the first time.  It was called "The Bad Seed."  Then he received word that producers in the United States had accepted one of his scripts.  Billy Wilder left Europe for America.

Billy Wilder had only eleven dollars when he arrived to settle in the United States in nineteen thirty-four.  He decided to live in the center of American movie making, Hollywood, California.  At the time, many people who had left Germany were working there.  They helped Wilder get jobs.  After a while he formed a writing team with Charles Brackett.  The two writers created many films together.

Wilder and Brackett wrote several successful movies.  One was the nineteen thirty-nine movie, "Ninotchka", starring Greta Garbo.  Ernst Lubitsch directed the film.  Wilder always praised this man as a friend and teacher whose humor and expert direction greatly influenced his work.

In his love stories, Billy Wilder did not follow the Hollywood tradition of sweet boy-meets-girl situations.  He had an unusual way of showing relations between men and women.  For example, one of his most successful films was "Hold Back the Dawn."  The French actor Charles Boyer plays a refugee in this nineteen forty-one film.  He marries an American woman so he can enter the United States.

In nineteen forty-four, Billy Wilder made a film called "Double Indemnity."  Some critics said this movie established him as one of the greatest Hollywood directors.  It told a vicious story about a married woman and her boyfriend.  They plot the death of her husband.

Charles Brackett thought the story was not moral.  So the famous American mystery writer Raymond Chandler was asked to help write the script.

As a director, Billy Wilder often violated Hollywood customs about social issues.  For example, someone who drinks too much alcohol had rarely been a movie subject.  Then Wilder directed "The Lost Weekend" in nineteen forty-five.  Charles Brackett returned to work on the movie with him.  They developed the script from a book by Charles Jackson.

Ray Milland plays the part of an alcoholic writer in the movie.  It shows that alcohol rules his life, yet he does not admit it.  He hides alcohol in his home and says he is not drinking.

Reports at the time said manufacturers of alcoholic drinks tried to suppress the movie.  They did not succeed.  The public and critics praised "The Lost Weekend" for its painful honesty.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Ray Milland the best actor award.  Billy Wilder won two Academy Awards.  One honored his part in writing the script.  The other honored his direction.  "The Lost Weekend" also won the first Grand Prix – first prize -- of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

World War Two ended in nineteen forty-five.  Wilder had become an American citizen in nineteen thirty-nine.  After the war, Wilder was asked by the United States Army to go to Germany to help re-organize the movie industry and radio media.  The Nazi government had used both for its propaganda.  While in Germany, Wilder learned that the Nazis had murdered his sister, his mother and his mother's husband.

In nineteen fifty, Wilder made  "Sunset Boulevard."  This movie told of an aging actress in silent movies.  She plans to return to movies.  Gloria Swanson played this star.  More than fifty years later, movie-lovers can still repeat some of her lines.

In one of the famous lines in "Sunset Boulevard," Ms. Swanson remembers telling the famous director Cecil B. DeMille that she is prepared for him to start filming:

(GLORIA SWANSON:  "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille." )

"Sunset Boulevard" won three Academy awards.  One honored the writing team of Wilder, Brackett and D. M. Marshman Junior.  The movie marked the last time Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote together.

Wilder also was highly praised for "Stalag Seventeen", which he both produced and directed.  The movie mixes humor and wartime realism.  William Holden plays a dishonest American war prisoner in a World War Two German camp for Allied servicemen.  Holden won the nineteen fifty-three Academy Award for his part.  Wilder was nominated for best director.

In nineteen fifty-four, Billy Wilder became an independent producer.  He left Paramount Pictures, the motion picture company he had worked with for many years.  He left after company officials cut many anti-Nazi comments from a version of "Stalag Seventeen."  That version was to be shown in Germany.

The next year, Wilder's first movie as an independent filmmaker was a huge success.  It was "The Seven Year Itch."  He developed the movie from a play by George Axelrod.  In this movie, a married man wants to cheat on his wife with a beautiful golden-haired young woman.  Marilyn Monroe played the young woman.  The part launched her as a major Hollywood success.  Some critics said Marilyn Monroe gave her best performances under Billy Wilder's direction.

In nineteen fifty-nine, Wilder made a funny movie that was very popular.  I. A. L. Diamond joined Wilder in writing "Some Like It Hot."  It tells about two jazz musicians being chased by criminals.  Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play the musicians.  They decide to wear women's clothes and join a band in which all the musicians were women.  Marilyn Monroe plays one of the band members.  She wants to make Lemmon and Curtis believe she is a musician.

(MARILYN MONROE: "I'm Sugar Kane. My mother was a piano teacher and my father was a conductor")

Billy Wilder continued to make interesting movies through the nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies.  As usual, he filled his movies with social comment and sexual situations.  Over the years, however, other writers and directors also did this.  By the nineteen eighties Wilder no longer was considered the most unusual, creative moviemaker in Hollywood.

In recent years, however, Billy Wilder received many more awards and honors.  Critics praised his gifts to movie making.  In nineteen eighty-seven, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.  It is the highest award a producer can receive.

Wilder died in March, two thousand two.  He was ninety-five.  A current Hollywood producer said: "Billy Wilder made movies that people will never forget."

This VOA Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.