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WILDER TIMES by Kevin Lally


The Life of Billy Wilder

by Kevin Lally

Pub Date: May 7th, 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-3119-7
Publisher: Henry Holt

 Lally, managing editor of The Film Journal, offers the first Wilder biography in several years, covering the director's last films. Billy Wilder was a trailblazer: As Lally points out, he was one of the directors who dragged Hollywood kicking and screaming into the real world, pursuing subject matter that the industry generally wouldn't touch. Whether it was adultery (Double Indemnity), alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), the megalomania of fame (Sunset Boulevard), or media irresponsibility (Ace in the Hole), Wilder turned his often jaundiced eye on phenomena that made the Production Code office squirm. He was born in 1906 in Galicia, an area of Poland that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, a perpetual business failure, pulled the family all over that empire, but most of Wilder's youth was spent in Vienna. Streetwise and energetic, Wilder worked his way into journalism and moved to Berlin in the last heady days of the Weimar Republic. In 1929, after a long campaign, he landed work as a screenwriter, gaining experience and contacts that would prove crucial to his career in America. Wilder fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power, going first to Paris and then, in 1934, on to New York and Hollywood. (His mother, stepfather, and grandmother died in Auschwitz.) After a brief false start, Wilder's career began a meteoric rise: A great success as a screenwriter at Paramount, he swiftly moved into a director's chair, had a string of hits, and made several successful comebacks. Lally tells this story competently and thoroughly. He has talked to Wilder (a notoriously difficult man to interview) and has some fresh insights into the films, although he is often quick to reduce them to their themes. An intelligent if somewhat plodding biography that gets most of its occasional sparkle from the wit of Wilder himself. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)