Why Billy Wilder is Deemed the Greatest Screenwriter of All Time

Contemporary writers love his iconic dialogue and hysterically human characters.
The Mirisch Company
By  · Published on March 1st, 2018

Contemporary writers love his iconic dialogue and hysterically human characters.

Late last year, Vulture circulated a poll to over 40 of today’s working screenwriters, asking which writer they consider the best. Number one on that list? Austrian-American filmmaker Billy Wilder, nominated for a dozen Academy Awards for screenwriting (both original and adapted) as well as eight more for directing. Known for such films as Double Indemnity (co-scripted by Raymond Chandler) and Some Like It Hot (co-scripted by I.A.L. Diamond), Wilder was one of the beloved talents of Classic Hollywood, and his impact has not gone forgotten, but what exactly about his vast body of work makes him viewed by screenwriters as the best screenwriter?

Most likely, it is his versatility. In a new video essay by Sage Hyden of Just Write, the most famous of Wilder’s films are examined: the aforementioned Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot plus Sunset Boulevard (co-written by Charles Brackett) and The Apartment (co-written by Diamond). Each film is incredibly different as a classic noir, a screwball comedy, a satiric noir, and a romantic comedy, respectively. Within these films, Wilder shows he was adept at balancing humor and drama, often going places other writer-directors could not. In The Apartment, an otherwise light-hearted romantic comedy, suicide and depression are seriously discussed without ever veering into melodrama. By this logic, it is no surprise that number two on Vulture’s list is Joel and Ethan Coen, who often apply their distinct sensibilities to disparate genres of film.

In his video, Hyden highlights how Wilder was influenced by famous director Ernst Lubitsch and “The Lubitsch Touch,” which pushed the younger director to “wring as much as possible out of every moment.” This often required a more subtle and creative way to tell the story, usually in a way that audiences had not seen before. Writing a script full of richly-layered characters, memorable dialogue, and inventive storytelling may seem impossible to juggle, but Wilder serves as a strong “reminder not to stop at good” in your own writing.

Watch the video below and remember that “nobody’s perfect!”

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