The great cynic is no more

01:00 Mon 08th Apr 2002 |

A.Yes. The film-maker Billy Wilder has died aged 95. His gifts for writing and directing led to such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity. He collected three Oscars for one film - the only person to do so.< xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Shirley MacLaine said of him: 'Billy Wilder's films are so savagely funny that we're usually too busy laughing to notice that he's really telling an underlying truth about human beings. I think what he's been doing all these years is making movies about reality, undermined by the best punchlines in the business.'


A.He was born Samuel Wilder to a Jewish family on 22 June, 1906, in the town of Sucha, 100 miles east of Vienna. His mother, Eugenia, nicknamed him Billy after Buffalo Bill Cody; his father, Max, operated a chain of railway cafes. Young Billy haunted theatres that played American films, and admired early stars such as William S Hart and Tom Mix.

After short stints at the University of Vienna and working as a journalist, he was hired to write a documentary, People on Sunday, in 1929. His screenwriting career flourished until 1933, when Hitler captured power in Germany. Wilder fled to Paris. His mother, grandmother and stepfather died at Auschwitz.

Wilder left for America after receiving an offer to write scripts for Columbia Pictures at $150 a week.

Q.The big time

A.In 1938 when he teamed with Charles Brackett, a polished, erudite member of New York's literary establishment. Brackett's refinement and Wilder's 'vulgar energy' produced such scripts as Midnight, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and Ninotchka, a comedy with Greta Garbo. After that collaboration, Wilder wrote with 'Izzy' Diamond for 30 years.

Q.What about his directing

A.He began in 1942 with The Major and the Minor, a comedy with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. Later, Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend won him acclaim as a big-time major director and writer. Lost Weekend won him an Oscar for writing; so did Sunset Boulevard.

Q.And he had success with Marilyn Monroe

A.Yes - but at a cost. After directing Marilyn Monroe in her two best comedies, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, Wilder said he would never again direct the permanently disorganised 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.

Q.And with Jack Lemmon

A.Wilder, Lemmon and Walter Matthau made a great combination. In The Apartment (1960), a cynical tale of corporate corruption, Lemmon played an underling who lent his apartment to company executives for affairs with secretaries.It won Wilder Oscars as co-writer, director and producer. The Front Page had both Lemmon and Matthau on superb form in the remake of the black newspaper comedy His Girl Friday.

It was one of his last successes, though. Others - One, Two, Three, Kiss Me, Stupid, The Fortune Cookie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Avanti!, Fedora, and Buddy Buddy failed to get the critical acclaim.


A.Wilder was still working on film projects in his 80s. In his later years, Wilder still received many honours, including the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. A film institute survey of the 100 best American movies in 1998, included four directed by Wilder. The 100 funniest American movies in 2000 featured Some Like It Hot at the top.

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Steve Cunningham

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