Billy Wilder, a journalist and then a film-maker in Germany, migrated to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. There he established a firm reputation as a screen writer and then began his directing career in 1942. Over the next four decades Wilder specialized in two genres -- situation comedies and film noir. In all his films, whether comedy or film noir, the very existence of his character will always be at stake. Although he is best known for those genres he also a directed classic thriller ("Witness for Prosecution", 1956) and a classic war film ("Stalag 17", 1952). In the situation-comedy category, Wilder is best known for "Some Like It Hot" (1958), and "The Apartment" (1960). Wilder put film noir on the map with "Double Indemnity" (1944) but is probably better known for "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).
Although Billy Wilder is highly regarded director, he is even more highly regarded as a screenwriter and for bringing out excellent performances in such films as "Double Indemnity" (1944, with Barbra Stanwyck), "Sunset Boulevard" (1949, with Gloria Swanson) and "Some Like It Hot" (1958, with Marilyn Monroe). Less flamboyant but no less memorable is his work with William Holden ("Stalag 17"), Ray Milland ("The Lost Weekend", 1945) and Jack Lemmon ("The Apartment"). His work with screen icons of that time like Erich Von Stroheim ("Sunset Boulevard") and Charles Laughton ("Witness for the Prosecution") is so well regarded that these performances have risen to the level of legend in an immodest profession.
Although known for their caustic wit, Wilder's films fluctuate between two polarities -- the utterly romantic and the utterly cynical. The best of his work -- "Avanti" (1972), "The Apartment" and "Sunset Boulevard" blends the two. At the extremes, however, we have the romantic "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" and the cynical "Ace In the Hole" (1951). But all of Wilder's films share the director's idea that the very existence of his characters is at stake. This existential trap may be external (the hated prisoner of war in "Stalag 17") or internal (the prisoner of alcohol in "The Lost Weekend"). Whatever, the cause, the struggle of Wilder's main characters is a struggle for existence. The consequence is a huge struggle for survival in each of Wilder's films.
To amplify Wilder often uses two elements -- the desperation of his main character and the presence of an antagonist. Joe Gillis (William Holden), the failed Hollywood screenwriter in "Sunset Boulevard", is at the end of the road. His car is about to be repossessed, he can expect no more favors from producers, and he is about to return home a failure when he meets his antagonist Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent screen star who is lonely and is eager to make a comeback. Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond need each other but in the end destroy one another.
In "The Apartment", C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is so desperate to move up in the insurance business that he does favors for insurance executives who are in a position to help him be promoted. He lends four of them his apartment for sexual trysts even though they endlessly put him out of his own home. Only when he lends his apartment to Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the executive in charge of personnel, does he get his promotion. Sheldrake is Baxter's antagonist, principally because he controls Baxter's professional horizon and because his mistress is Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), the woman with whom Baxter hopes to have a relationship. For both Joe Gillis and CC Baxter, their existence is wrapped up with their professional identity.
In both "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Apartment", whether the main character can survive is tested. As expected in film noir, Joe Gillis is destroyed. As expected in situation comedy, C.C. Baxter survives, a better man than his corporate antagonist.
To understand Wilder and his expectations of actors, it is clear that he and his collaborators wrote roles that required confident actors. This explains the difficulties he encountered with Marilyn Monroe; nevertheless, he secured from Monroe her best screen performance in "Some Like It Hot."
The roles often positioned the main character as an outsider in his particular situation -- William Holden's opportunistic, unpatriotic prisoner-of-war character in "Stalag 17", Jack Lemmon's small-fish in a pool-of sharks character in "The Apartment" and Kirk Douglas' aggressive, big city reporter of New Mexico in "Ace in the Hole." These roles required actors who could work in a marginalized dramatic space and amplify their actions to have an impact beyond their confines, physical and emotional.
Wilder also had a penchant for mixing icons from directing as well as acting with the rest of the cast, including Buster Keaton and Eric Von Stroheim in "Sunset Boulevard" and Otto Preminger (director: "Anatomy of Murder", "Laura") as camp commandant in "Stalag 17." Although to a certain extent Wilder cast for type, he was as likely to challenge type in casting. Consider his use of Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity" as the romantic hero and later as the antagonist in "The Apartment."
Also critical to performances in Wilder films is that everything is at stake for the character. The actor not only has to pull out all the stops but must also enter a kind of obsessive madness. If the character is too stable, the performance will fail. If the character is either excessively rational or unstable, the performance will fail.
This is why it is difficult to imagine Marlon Brando or Clark Gable in a Wilder film. They represent opposite extremes of characters. Instead, Wilder cast for "normality" or at least its appearance -- Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Jack Lemmon -- and then explores what happens to his characters when they enter into obsessive madness. It is their very ordinariness that enables these performers to transport us to the eerie edge where we understand that their very existence is at stake.
Billy Wilder should be admired for his capacity to engage and enrage us with his characters, and he did so with enormous wit. We should remember that Wilder was displaced by the politics and racial policies of his country if origin. When he came to the United States, he could not speak a word of English yet became one of the great wordsmiths of American film. Because Wilder positions his characters in narrative that raises the stakes, he goes to the very heart of great drama. How he organized the performance to articulate the dilemma for his characters, and how he orchestrated the camera in service of the story are clear examples of narrative ambition. He took us further than most directors choose to go, and for that reason his work deserves to be revisited by new generations of movie-lovers .
Billy Wilder Interview at AFI