Billy Wilder – American Film Institute

Billy Wilder

14th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

Billy Wilder

“Now what is it which makes a scene interesting?” the writer-director once asked. And, as he has been known to do, he went on to answer his own question. “If you see a man coming through a doorway, it means nothing. If you see him coming through a window, that is at once interesting.” And somehow you know it’s as simple and complex as that. You know he’s right. He must be. Because that writer-direct, Billy Wilder, has been coming through those windows for over fifty years. And he’s been doing it beautifully.

Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha, Austria (now part of Poland) in 1906, Billy Wilder spent his early professional life as a reporter in Vienna. In 1926 he relocated to Berlin, where his reputation as a journalist grew. But by then a different dream had taken hold — the movies. Selling his first script to an extremely grateful and quite naked producer he helped hide from the jealous boyfriend of a neighboring young lady, Wilder’s career as a screenwriter began. After several successful years in the German film industry, Wilder fled to Paris a week after the Reichstag fire in 1933. Ten months later he emigrated to America, where an initially difficult time in Hollywood gave way to employment as a screenwriter. In 1938 Wilder was teamed with Charles Brackett. Through their scripts for such films as BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, NINOTCHKA and BALL OF FIRE, they became the best-known and most respected writing team in Hollywood. This success enabled Wilder to fight for and win his first American directing assignment, the now-classic comedy, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, and “the Billy Wilder Film” was born.

“The Billy Wilder film.” The phrase is at once as specific and difficult to casually categorize as the filmmaker himself. Billy Wilder, the master of the American comedy who wrote and directed the grand melodramas of SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The hard-hitting dramatist who created the funniest movie ever made, SOME LIKE IT HOT. The “great cynic” who steeped us in the lyric romanticism of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON and AVANTI! The “classic romantic” who confronted us with the harsh realities of ACE IN THE HOLE. Simultaneously one of the most European and American of all directors, the man refuses to stand still long enough to allow us our neat and easy definition. But, to put it in his own words, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Through his work on films as daringly varied as THE LOST WEEKEND, A FOREIGN AFFAIR, THE APARTMENT and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, this “imperfect genius” has proven himself a true master of all aspects of the language of film, as comfortable and adept t telling a story thorough his brilliant visual style as through his unparalleled dialogue. And although the characters, the locales, the tone and genres may change, one subject seems to remain contant — the bizarre and glorious state know as the human comedy. Through the drama and the farce and the romance and despair, what we’re watching up there is, as in all great art, a reflection of ourselves. If Billy Wilder has, in fact, been climbing through all those windows through all those years and all those films, we can be sure he took a good, strong look inside first. Only then could he have so truthfully and eloquently held up the mirror to show us this vision of our lives with all our falls and triumphs.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.