Tuesday, June 28

The Directors: William Wyler

He was a truly exceptional director.  I may have written about many before him but most all of those and also those to come could have sat at his feet and taken lessons. Most directors are scolded somewhat if they don't seem to have a distinct style... Ford for his westerns or Hitchcock and his mystery-thrillers, for example.  I look at William Wyler and consider how he did it.  In my best stab at brevity, let's say he included the audience in the proceedings. We'll chat about this more.

That may be my last burst of brevity on the pragmatic Wyler... lordy, there's a lot of material to cover.  The list of movie masterpieces alone is so impressive... I am practically hyper-ventilating at the notion of cutting out some of them as I do in these pieces.  

Just for starters, let's consider that he had three Oscars for directing... only John Ford can boast more with four.  But Wyler holds the title of being Oscar's most nominated director with a whopping 12.  Should you be a bit unfamiliar with his work, I hope as you read this you will be saying to yourself... he did that, too?  I loved that flick.

He was always called Willy and it, in fact, is his birth name.  Born in 1902 in the Alsace-Lorraine region of Germany (it is now France), his Swiss father was a dry goods merchant and his German mother was responsible for introducing him to and encouraging him in the arts. He would be educated for a time in Switzerland. The family was a strong-minded, often imperious (even with one another), outspoken group of perfectionists, all of which Willy would bring with him to Hollywood.

At 20, while Willy was studying the violin in Paris, he was sought out by his mother's first cousin, Carl Laemmle who happened to be the head of Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  Nepotism was alive and well with Cousin Carl who employed around 70 members of his family...to the company's eventual detriment.  Willy's time in the publicity department was brief.  Laemmle saw leadership in Wyler, even at that young age, and soon Willy was an assistant director on two-reel westerns, the studio's bread and butter flicks. It was no small honor.

By 1936 he had directed a number of films, talkies and silents, and pushed out a potpourri of shorts.  He left Universal around this time for greener pastures and as the next few years would unfold, he was most fortunate to join forces with three powerhouses... producer Sam Goldwyn, cinematographer Gregg Toland and actress Bette Davis.  Perhaps his most successful of those relationships was with Toland, at least because they didn't do quite the battle that he did with Goldwyn especially and Davis.  It would be hard for anyone with knowledge of Wyler's work to dispute for even a second that his work with these three was anything less than superb.

In 1936 Wyler first worked with both Goldwyn and Toland.  There were two films that year, the completely rewritten lesbian drama, Lillian Helman's These Three, and the rousing lumberjack tale, Come and Get It, my favorite of Wyler's 1930s films, and starring Frances Farmer at her most beautiful in dual roles.  He would receive his first Oscar nomination for steering the well-conceived marital drama, Dodsworth, in 1936, which examined cultural differences between Europe and America.

I am not much of a fan of 1939s Wuthering Heights (or any subsequent versions), although I know I take my life in my hands offering that opinion. I never particularly understood the dreary story's acclaim nor was I a fan of Merle Oberon and only occasionally did I find Laurence Olivier deserving of his reputation.  Call me crazy. But I do know it was a huge hit that has maintained a cult status. Wyler was again Oscar-nominated.

His artistry first showed its limitless wonder at the stage of the writing.  Whether it came from a play or a book or was an original screenplay, with Wyler, it was everything.  It's 80% script and 20% you get good actors, he proffered. He treated his screenplays like they were his children.  He wanted to kill when someone tried to tamper with his screenplay or usurp his authority. Another man who didn't like tampering or usurping authority, unfortunately, was Goldwyn, his boss, and now one may get why the two powerful egos didn't much get along, despite producing some masterpieces together.

In a relatively few years Wyler had learned the art of filmmaking very well and he knew how to give spit and polish to his work. Every scene of every film would be its own special project for him to work on; each scene had a beginning, middle and end. There was structure to everything the man touched. He was excellent at framing and pacing a scene and coaxing all the emotion and drama and authenticity out of it.

He brought his audiences into the film, into each scene.  It could almost feel as if one was on a giant soundstage watching the filming.  He and his buddy, Toland, worked with a process called deep focus in which something is staged with a great depth of field. Both close-up and distant objects (including people) in a single scene could be in focus rather than one or the other.  It made for a greater feeling of intimacy.  Wyler loved getting all the shots... long, medium and closeup.  His expertise in the editing room was also legendary. Others did the cutting but the decisions were usually all-Wyler.  

Actors who hadn't worked with him wanted to but actors who had worked with him didn't always want to again. On the up side, they knew the man's reputation for enhancing one's career by bringing the very best out of them, leading to stardom for the actor or greater stardom and choicer roles. But it came at a cost. With all his accomplishments with actors, he didn't know how to talk to them. There was never any point to asking him what the motivation was. He may not have known.  He was known as 90-Take Wyler because he would order one take after another after another until he got what he wanted.  He didn't care if the actor were tired or irritable. And he couldn't say what he was looking for even when they asked him. He simply said... again.

Bette Davis and her favorite director

He made three gems with Bette Davis.  He was Oscar-nominated for two of them and she for all three, winning for one. Jezebel (1938) was a tremendous coup for Davis and she deservedly won an Oscar for playing a spiteful, southern vixen who drives poor Henry Fonda to distraction.  For his guidance of her in 1940s rubber plantation murder opus, The Letter, and 1941s The Little Foxes, a story of uncomparable family avarice, Wyler got two more nominations.  I perhaps didn't always appreciate Davis' work but if there were 10 performances that show her mastery, these are three of them.  She always said that he was her favorite director. What she didn't always say was that she had fallen in love with him and he was not in love with her, although they did have an affair. Both perfectionists, they battled royally. She flounced off more than one film set because she could not run roughshod over him.

In 1937 Wyler directed a talented cast (Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor) in Dead End, another prestigious picture, a social drama that looked at different classes living on New York's east side, that performed very well.  In 1942 he was loaned to MGM to make the British war drama, Mrs.Miniver, and both he and his title star, Greer Garson, won Oscars. It was a huge success although it never captured my imagination.

Wyler was itching to get into the war.  He became a major in the army and directed some well-received documentaries, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and The Fighting Lady, a naval story which won an Oscar.  He suffered partial hearing loss as a result of filming the latter.

When he returned to civilian life and Goldwyn, he was excited to direct The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which he first came across while he was still in the military. He had discovered disabled Harold Russell and turned him into an Oscar-winning actor in the tale of three vets hovering on the margin of life as they return to being civilians. Many people, myself included, consider this to be Wyler's best film and it is undeniably his most personal.  He walked out of the studio gates and ended his polemic relationship with Goldwyn once the film was ready for release. He would win a second Oscar for his sensitive handling and the film would go on to be the most financially successful of the decade and one of the most cherished in American film history. You just read about it last week.

He would end the decade with The Heiress (1949), based on a Henry James novel about a plain spinster caught between a handsome and unctuous social-climbing suitor and her tyrannical, priggish father. Like most of Wyler's productions, he elicited magnificent performances from his actors, this time from Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and in an Oscar-winning role, Olivia de Havilland.

I found his work in the 1950s to be just as compelling as what he did in the 1940s.  He ventured into film noir and still another Oscar nomination for the gritty Detective Story (1952).  It concerned a cynical detective and his my-way-or-the-highway work style in a New York precinct.  It contains one of Kirk Douglas' best performances and Eleanor Parker and Lee Grant were both Oscar-nominated.

Film noir was off the beaten path for Wyler and so was comedy but few would argue that Roman Holiday (1953) was anything less than pure delight.  Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were ideally cast as a runaway princess and a reporter.  It was her first American film and she would capture the Oscar.  Of course Wyler was nominated as well.

An exciting cast-- Bogart, Fredric March, Dewey Martin, Arthur Kennedy-- was at the heart of the action in 1955s The Desperate Hours.  The story of three bankrobbers who hold a suburban family hostage in their own home was a fast-paced thriller with a savvy, bad-guy performance by Bogart.

Wyler would garner yet another nomination for a film that seems to have become more cherished as years go by, Friendly Persuasion (1956).  The story of the testing of a Quaker family's pacificism at the start of the American Civil War was a superb vehicle for Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire. She was not keen on Wyler's directing style, resulting in her crankiness throughout the production.

While he was in a horse-and-buggy frame of mind, he decided to hitch up to The Big Country (1958).  He and Peck had been friends since Roman Holiday and the actor was going to co-produce the sprawling western.  A star-studded cast joined Peck and Wyler... Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford (an old Wyler pal), Chuck Connors and Alfonso Bedoya... all of whom surround the director in the photo above.  I have long considered this my favorite western of all time... to this day I probably watch it once or twice a year.  But we discussed it in an earlier posting which included the skinny on why Wyler and Peck fought during the arduous production and didn't speak for years afterward and never worked together again.

Heston had no such reservations working for Wyler again and did so the following year as the title star of Ben-Hur.  Shot over nine months at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome, it was a mammoth production, the biggest Wyler would ever undertake.  He and Heston would do some battle themselves over staging and interpretation and I'm not aware of any record showing that Heston came out the victor. Wyler's trained eye surveyed every detail.  He chose all the camera setups for the great chariot race although the actual filming of the event, which included scores of horses and 15,000 extras, was handled by assistant director Andrew Marton and famed stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt.

It was the only American religious-themed film up to its time to be sanctioned by the Vatican.  It would go on to win an astonishing 11 Oscars, including one for the picture itself, one for Heston and the third one for the master.

Ben-Hur's sister was played by Cathy O'Donnell in her final film role.  Her first was as Harold Russell's understanding girlfriend in The Best Years of Our Lives.  In real life, she was Wyler's sister-in-law, married to his older brother, Robert.

I always found this to be the film that didn't really fit into Wyler's canon of work because he didn't do big spectacles.  He tended to do smaller, more personal dramas.  The genre is not my favorite but I cannot deny that this was a superbly-crafted film.  He liked to joke that it obviously took a Jew to make a good story about Christ.  It seemed like there was nothing he could touch that didn't turn to gold.

Until The Children's Hour (1961). It was not a gold strike.  What it is was a remake of Wyler's earlier These Three, this time with the lesbian theme reinstated.  Well sort of. Films at the time certainly didn't address the subject head-on so while the theme was reinstated, it was still lightly skirted around. Shirley MacLaine once apparently said that no one even discussed the subject off-camera, which says a great deal.  Wyler may have found the remake compelling because it was another chance to work with Audrey Hepburn.  Would you believe the lead roles of the two girls' schoolteachers were first offered to another Hepburn, Katharine, and Doris Day? 

Wyler and Hepburn greatly respected one another

He lost two chances to work with Julie Andrews.  That may not mean a lot today but in 1963 it was really saying a mouthful and tongues were certainly wagging.  He was fired (!) from the production of 1964s The Americanization of Emily because he wanted to rewrite portions of the script.  Interestingly those words, thrumming with electricity and often offering a powerful sock to the senses, were written by none other than the intellectual Paddy Chayevsky and one didn't change his words.  Not even William Wyler.

A year later he was offered to steer another expected blockbuster, The Sound of Music (1965).  He went to Austria, did some location work and interviewed the real Maria von Trapp.  However, he never really warmed to the project-- he would claim he didn't want to do a film that had anything to do with Nazis-- and dropped out. Robert Wise, who won an Oscar for helming West Side Story, stepped in and won another one.

Instead, Wyler made The Collector (1965). Terence Stamp starred as a disturbed bloke who kidnaps a comely young woman, Samantha Eggar, and imprisons her in his basement so that he can gaze upon her.  It rather bored me, I'm afraid, but I always sensed it could have been better, gone further, lifted the lid off, been more compelling.  Your pick.  Perhaps it was just a little too peculiar to be in a horse race with the likes of The Sound of Music and Dr. Zhivago.  Nonetheless, Wyler received his last Oscar nomination for this film.

Rather than licking his wounds he jumped right back into the thick of things with his production of How to Steal a Million (1966). The comedic story of a daughter who tries to keep her art forger father from being exposed as a fake was just not up to the master's standards.  Again, perhaps his judgment was clouded because of a third opportunity to work with Audrey Hepburn, who looked about as chic as she ever looked in a film... and that's quite a claim.  Or maybe it was a chance to work with someone he'd never worked with before and was highly regarded, Peter O'Toole, who showed a lovely aptitude for comedy.  The truth is it was kinda fun... just a little slumming for Willy Wyler, director extraordinaire.

Wyler's penultimate film became his first and only musical... Funny Girl (1968).  I remember reading about his hiring in The Hollywood Reporter and was rather flabbergasted.  I had also read earlier that Sidney Lumet was going to direct but it didn't work out.  Wyler balked at accepting but reconsidered after meeting La Streisand.  I recall reading articles on their battles and although I didn't know much about her at the time, I thought an untried movie actress (her first film, mind you) is giving William Wyler a load of crap?! We'll never hear from her again.  (I'm not just into movies, y'know, I do predictions, too.)  When asked after filming wrapped if working with her had been hard, Wyler responded... no, not too hard considering it was the first movie she ever directed.

The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) concerned the collapse of race relations in a small southern town and it may have suffered in comparison to the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967) which it greatly resembles and the two films share a common writer.  I liked its cast (Roscoe Lee Browne, Lola Falana) but it was nowhere as stellar as those in most of Wyler's greatest films. Critics faulted Wyler's direction and feel of the story as being too cold. Maybe he knew little about race relations at that time.  I don't think he had ever directed a black actor in a prominent role.  At any rate, I liked the rather grim proceedings well enough but I felt the same as I did with How to Steal a Million... not up to his standards.  The reviews were not kind and Wyler decided it was time to pack it in.

He was married to two actresses named Margaret.  He and Margaret Sullavan were married for barely a year in the early thirties. They were like oil and water and it appeared to be a marriage he would liked to have forgotten.  It might have been a hoot on the Jezebel set in 1938 because star Henry Fonda had also been briefly married to Sullavan.

A year and a half after his divorce, Wyler married Margaret Tallichet, always called Talli, perhaps for obvious reasons. She was a lovely woman who gave Wyler five children and a 34-year marriage and was considered one of Hollywood's busiest and most gracious hostesses.  The Wylers threw some legendary parties.

Despite his renown for being tough and/or confusing to actors, an impressive 31 of them were nominated for Academy Awards and 13 of those would win.

He is one of the most accomplished and honored filmmakers of all time.  I suspect he is the only person to have directed three Oscar-winning best pictures.  Those same pictures, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur, are also ones for which he won directing Oscars and are on the American Film Institute's 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.  The prestigious AFI would honor Wyler as the fourth recipient of their annual tribute.

William Wyler died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1981, a couple of weeks after his 79th birthday.

Next posting:
Birthday wishes for a 100-year old

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