Cook Library Cinema Club: Billy Wilder
Periodically, the Cook Library Cinema Club will shine the Spotlight on Directors -- where we'll highlight the work of some of the greatest directors of American films.
We'll start with the late, great Billy Wilder -- one of the most versatile and successful directors of Hollywood's Golden Era. In a career that spanned over 50 years, 60 films, and included six Oscar wins, the Austrian-born filmmaker was a true triple-threat who wrote, directed, and produced everything from heavy drama to broad comedy. The Jewish Wilder began his career as a screenwriter in Germany, but emigrated to the U.S., via Paris, as the Nazi Party gained power in the 1920's. He first gained attention in Hollywood for his screenplay of the classic comedy Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. Early directorial assignments soon followed, with Wilder directing his own screenplays for such classic dramas as The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity. After the huge success of those films, there was no stopping his particular brand of genius, and his filmography is studded with some of the most successful movies of all time, in every genre imaginable. You will find a great selection of Wilder's best films here at the library. So many wonderful films to choose from! Three of our favorites are highlighted below.
One of Wilder's best-loved films is the classic 1959 comic farce Some Like it Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. After inadvertently witnessing a major mob hit, two Chicago musicians are desperate for a gig that will get them out of town fast. When the only job openings are with an all-girl band heading to Florida, they do what any self-respecting guys would do to save their skin: dress in drag and hop on the train with the band as it heads out of town. Needless to say, complications ensue, especially when "the girls" encounter sexy ukelele player Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Monroe). The film marked Wilder's first project with his favorite actor -- the great Jack Lemmon -- with whom Wilder made seven films over the course of his long career.
The 1960 film The Apartment is another Billy Wilder masterpiece, starring screen greats Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon plays Bud Baxter, a low-level employee of a large insurance company with designs on moving up the company ladder. Baxter knows his desire to net a nice promotion will require some unique efforts to distinguish himself from the rest of the pack, and he hits on the idea of loaning out his Upper West Side apartment to company executives to use for their extramarital affairs. Things get a little dicey when the company's personnel manager gets wind of the operation and wants exclusive rights to the apartment for a rendezvous -- and it turns out that the rendezvous is with a woman to whom Bud himself is attracted. The film is an especially entertaining take on the darker side of corporate culture (think Mad Men). The movie was a huge hit upon its release and, of its five Oscar wins, three belonged to Wilder for Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture (as producer).
Yet another great Wilder film is the classic Hollywood melodrama Sunset Boulevard in which Gloria Swanson, in the role of a lifetime, plays washed-up silent film star Nora Desmond. Living as a virtual recluse in her rundown Sunset Boulevard mansion with her butler Max, the delusional actress becomes convinced that a major film comeback is within her grasp when she takes a hack Hollywood screenwriter as her lover (William Holden). The film racked up 11 Oscar nominations upon its release in 1950, including two for Wilder as both director and screenwriter, and nominations in all four acting categories. A truly iconic American film!