William Wyler


This Knol was written by Jon Hopwood
It is being distributed here under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

As part of the Jon Hopwood Recovery Project

William Wyler was an American filmmaker who, at the time of his death in 1981, was considered by his peers as second only to John Ford as a master craftsman of cinema. The winner of three Best Director Academy Awards, second again only to Ford's four, Wyler's reputation has unfairly suffered as the lack of an obvious "signature" in his diverse body of work denies him the honorific "auteur" that has become a standard measure of greatness in the post-Cahiers du Cinema critical community. Estimable, but inferior, directors typically are praised more than is Wyler, due to an obviousness of style that makes it easy to encapsulate their work. However, no American director after D.W. Griffith and the early Cecil B. DeMille, not even the great Orson Welles, did as much to fully develop the basic canon of filmmaking technique than did Wyler--once again, with the caveat of John Ford.

Wyler's directorial career spanned 45 years, from silent pictures to the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Nominated a record 12 times for an Academy Award as Best Director, he won three and in 1966, was honored with the Irving Thalberg Award, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' ultimate accolade for a producer. So high was his reputation in his lifetime that he was the fourth recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, after Ford, James Cagney and Welles. Along with Ford and Welles, Wyler ranks with the best and most influential American directors, including Griffith, DeMille, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg.

Born Wilhelm Weiller on July 1, 1902, in Mulhouse in the province of Alsace, then a possession of Germany, to a Swiss father and a German mother, Wyler used his family connections to establish himself in the film industry. Upon being offered a job by his mother's first cousin, Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle, Wyler emigrated to the US in 1920 at the age of 18. After starting in Universal's New York offices as an errand boy, he moved his way up through the organization, ending up in the California operation in 1922.

Wyler was given the opportunity to direct in July 1925, with the two-reel western Crook Buster (1925). It was on this film that he was first credited as William Wyler, though he never officially changed his name and would be known as "Willi" all his life. For almost five years he performed his apprenticeship in Universal's "B" unit, turning out a score of low-budget silent westerns. In 1929 he made his first "A" picture, Hell's Heroes (1930), Universal's first all-sound movie shot outside a studio. The western, the first version of the Three Godfathers story, was a commercial and critical success.

The initial years of the Great Depression brought hard times for the film industry, and Universal went into receivership in 1932, partially due to financial troubles brought about by rampant nepotism and the runaway production costs rung up by producer Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of the boss. There were 70 Laemmle family members on the Universal payroll at one point, including Wyler.
 In 1935 "Uncle" Carl was forced to sell the studio he had created in 1912 with the merger of his Independent Motion Picture Co. with several other production companies. Wyler continued to direct for Universal up until the end of the family regime, helming Counselor at Law (1933), the film version of Elmer Rice's play featuring one of John Barrymore's more restrained performances, and The Good Fairy (1935), a comedy adapted from a Ferenc Moln├ír play by Preston Sturges and starring Margaret Sullavan, who was Wyler's wife for a short time. Both films were produced by his cousin, "Junior" Laemmle.

Emancipated from the Laemmle family, Wyler subsequently established himself as a major director in the mid-1930s, when he began directing films for independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. Willi would soon find his freedom fettered by the man with the fabled "Goldwyn touch," which entailed bullying his directors to recast, rewrite and recut their films, and sometimes replacing them during shooting.
The first of the Wyler-Goldwyn works was These Three (1936), based on Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play The Children's Hour. (The play's Sapphic theme was jettisoned in favor of a more conventional heterosexual triangle due to censorship concerns, but it resurfaced intact when Wyler remade the film a quarter-century later).
His first unqualified success for Goldwyn was Dodsworth (1936), an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' portrait of a disintegrating American marriage, a marvelous film that still resonates with audiences in the 21st century. He received his first Best Director Oscar nomination for this picture. The film was nominated for Best Picture, the first of seven straight years in which a Wyler-directed movie would earn that accolade, culminating with Oscars for both Willi and Mrs. Miniver in 1943.
William Wyler's potential greatness can be seen as early as Hell's Heroes, an early talkie that is not constrained by the restrictions of the new technology. The climax of the picture, with Charles Bickford`s dying badman walking into town, is a long tracking shot that focuses not on the actor himself but the detritus that he shucks off to lighten his load as he brings a baby back to a cradle of civilization. The scene is a harbinger of the free-flowing style that would become a hallmark of his work. However, it was with Dodsworth that Wyler began to establish his critical reputation. The film features long takes and a probing camera, a style that Wyler would make his own.

Now established as Goldwyn's director of choice, Wyler made several films for him, including Dead End (1937) and Wuthering Heights (1939). Essentially an employee of the producer, Wyler clashed with Goldwyn over aesthetic choices and longed for his freedom. Goldwyn had demanded that the ghetto set of Dead End be spruced up and that "clean garbage" be used in the water tank representing the East River, over Wyler's objections. Goldwyn prevailed, as he did later with the ending of Wuthering Heights. After Wyler had finished principal photography on the film, Goldwyn demanded a new ending featuring the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy reunited and walking away towards what the audience would assume is heaven and an eternity of conjoined bliss. Wyler opposed the new ending and refused to shoot it. Goldwyn had his ending shot without Wyler and had it tacked onto the final cut. It was an artistic betrayal that rankled Willi.

Goldwyn loaned out Wyler to other studios, and he made Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940) for Warner Bros. Working with Bette Davis in the two masterpieces, as well as in Goldwyn's The Little Foxes (1941), Wyler elicited three of the great diva's finest performances. In these films and his films of the mid-to-late 1930s, Wyler pioneered the use of deep-focus cinematography, most famously with lighting cameraman Gregg Toland. Toland shot seven of the eight films Wyler directed for Goldwyn: These Three, Come and Get It (1936) (taking over from Howard Hawks, who had been fired), Dead End (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939) -- for which Toland won his only Academy Award -- The Westerner (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Compositions in Wyler pictures frequently featured multiple horizontal planes with various characters arranged in diagonals at varying distances from the camera lens. Creating an illusion of depth, these deep-focus shots enhanced the naturalism of the picture while heightening the drama.

Wyler said that Gregg Toland was, "A great and happy influence on my work. Usually photography doesn't influence direction but Toland's deep focus work did because we were able to let the audience do its own cutting. But if the photography allows you to see all four actors in one shot and in sharp focus, reacting to each other within the same shot, you've gained the opportunity to use a big close-up at the most important point. In this way Toland improved upon my direction."

As the photography of Wyler's films was used to serve the story and create mood rather than call attention to itself, Toland was later mistakenly given credit for creating deep-focus cinematography along with another great director, Orson Welles, in Citizen Kane (1941). In truth, Wyler's first use of deep-focus cinematography was in 1935, with The Good Fairy, on which Norbert Brodine was the lighting cameraman. It was the first of his films featuring deep-focus shots and the diagonal compositions that became a Wyler leitmotif. The film also includes a receding mirror shot a half-decade before Toland and Welles created a similar one for Citizen Kane.

Wyler won his first Oscar as Best Director with Mrs. Miniver for MGM, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture, the first of three Wyler films that would be so honored. Made as a propaganda piece for American audiences to prepare them for the sacrifices necessitated by World War II, the movie is set in wartime England and elucidates the hardships suffered by an ordinary, middle-class English family coping with the war. An enthusiastic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, after seeing the film at a White House screening, said, "This has to be shown right away." The film also won Oscars for star Greer Garson and co-star Theresa Wright, for cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, and to James Hilton and three other co-writers for Best Screenplay.

After "Miniver," Wyler went off to war as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. One of his more memorable propaganda films of the period was a documentary about a B-17 bomber, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), He also directed the Navy documentary The Fighting Lady (1944), an examination of life aboard an American aircraft carrier. Though the later film won an Oscar as Best Documentary, The Memphis Belle is considered a classic of its form. The making of the documentary was even the subject of a 1990 feature film of the same name. The Memphis Belle focuses on the eponymous B-17 bomber and its 25th, and last, air raid flown from a base in England. The documentary features aerial battle footage that Wyler and his crew shot over the skies of Germany. One of his photographic crew, flying in another plane, was killed during the filming of the air battles. Wyler himself lost the hearing in one ear and became partially deaf in the other due to the noise and concussion of the flak bursting around his aircraft. (In 1990, a move was released about the Memphis Belle.)

Wyler's first picture upon returning from World War II would prove to be the last movie he made for Goldwyn. A returning veteran like those portrayed in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), this film won Wyler his second Oscar. The movie, which featured a moving performance by real-life veteran and double amputee Harold Russell, struck a universal chord with Americans and was a major box office hit. It was the second Wyler-directed picture to be named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The film also won Oscars for star Fredric March and co-star Russell (who was also given an honorary award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans"), film editor Daniel Mandell, composer Hugo Friedhofer and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood, and was instrumental in garnering the Irving Thalberg Award for Samuel Goldwyn, who also took home the Best Picture Oscar that year as Best Years producer.

Though Wyler elicited some of the finest performances preserved on film, ironically he could not communicate what he wanted to an actor. A perfectionist, he became known as "40-Take Wyler", shooting a scene over and over again until the actors played it the way he wanted. With his use of long takes, actors were forced to act within each take as their performances would not be covered in the cutting room. His long takes and lack of cutting slowed down the pacing of his films, providing a greater feeling of continuity within each scene and intimately involving the audience in the development of the drama. The story in a Wyler film was allowed to unfold organically, with no tricky editing to cover up holes in the script or to compensate for an inadequate performance. Wyler typically rehearsed his actors for two weeks before the beginning of principal photography.

While more actors won Academy Awards in Wyler movies, 14 out of a total of 36 nominations (more than any other two directors combined), few actors worked more than once or twice with him. Bette Davis worked on three films with him and won Academy Award nominations for each performance and an Oscar for Jezebel. On their last collaboration, The Little Foxes (1941), Davis walked off the production for two weeks after clashing with Wyler over how her character should be played.

He proved hard on other experienced actors, such as Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, who gave credit to Willi for turning him from a stage actor into a movie actor. "This isn't the Opera House in Manchester," Wyler told Olivier, his way of conveying that he should tone down his performance. A year earlier, Wyler had forced Henry Fonda through 40 takes on the set of Jezebel, Wyler's only direction being "Again" after each repeated take. When Fonda demanded some input on what he was doing wrong, Wyler replied only: "It stinks. Do it again." According to Charlton Heston, Wyler approached him early in the shooting of Ben-Hur (1959) and told him that his performance was inadequate. When a dismayed Heston asked him what he should do, "Be better" is all that Wyler could supply. In his autobiography, Elia Kazan, a famed "actor's director", tells how he offered advice to an actor acquaintance of his who was making a Wyler picture as he knew that the great director was inarticulate about acting and would be unable to give advice.

Wyler believed that after many takes, actors got angry and began to shed their preconceived ideas about acting in general and the part in particular. Stripped of these notions, actors were able to play at a truer level. It is a process that Stanley Kubrick would subsequently use on his post-2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) films, though to different results, creating an otherworldly anti-realism rather than the more naturalistic truth of a Wyler movie performance. Wyler's method often meant that his films went over schedule and over budget, but he got results. The performances in Wyler films are part of this craftsman's consummate skill for injecting thoughtfulness into his movies while avoiding sentimentality and pandering to the audience. A Wyler film demands that his audience, like his actors, become intelligent collaborators of his.

William Wyler's reputation has suffered as he is not considered an "auteur," or "author" of his films. However, in his postwar career, he definitely was the auteur, or controlling consciousness, behind his films. Though he never took a screenwriting credit (other than for an early horse opera, Ridin' for Love (1926)), he selected his own stories and controlled the screenwriting, hiring his own writers in a development process that could take years.

Wyler films in his postwar period include The Heiress (1949), a fine version of Henry James' novel Washington Square, with an Oscar-winning performance by Olivia de Havilland; Detective Story (1951), a police drama that takes place on a minimal, controlled set almost as restricted as that of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948); and Roman Holiday (1953), which won Audrey Hepburn an Oscar in her first leading role. The other films of this period are Carrie (1952) (based on Theodore Dreiser's classic novel Sister Carrie), The Desperate Hours (1955) and Friendly Persuasion (1956).

Wyler returned to the western genre one last time with The Big Country (1958), a picture far removed in scope from his two-reeler origins, featuring Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, and Wyler's old "Hell's Heroes" star Bickford.

"I made over forty Westerns," Wyler once reminisced. "I used to lie awake nights trying to think up new ways of getting on and off a horse."

It was not a happy shoot. Wyler fell out with his friend Gregory Peck when he refused to reshoot a scene in which Peck thought his acting was inadequate. Rather than slow down the shoot, Wyler promised they would come back and reshoot the scene at the end of the production but he reneged on his promise and refuse to reshoot the scene.

"It's eighty percent script and twenty percent you get great actors," Wyler said. "There's nothing else to it."

Wyler was unable to communicate what he wanted to an actor, but he knew what worked.

Thirty-one actors he directed were nominated for the Academy Award, a record among directors. Burl Ives, who played the patriarch of an outlaw clan in conflict with Bickford's family, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in The Big Country rather than for recreating his legendary performance as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), which was released the same year. He was one of 13 actors who won Oscars under Wyler's direction.

Wyler was next enlisted by producer Sam Zimbalist to helm MGM's high-stakes Ben-Hur (1959), a remake of its 1925 classic. It was a high-budget ($15 million, approximately $110 million when factored for inflation), wide-screen (the aspect ratio of the film is 2.76 to 1 when properly shown in 70mm anamorphic prints, the highest ratio ever used for a film) epic that the studio had spent six years preparing. Principal photography required more than six months of shooting on location in Italy, with hundreds of crew members and thousands of extras. Wyler was the overlord of the largest crew and oversaw more extras than any other film had ever used.

Despite its size, Wyler's Ben-Hur, along with Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), arguably is the most intelligent entry in the Biblical blockbuster genre. Grossing $74 million (approximately $550 million, when adjusted for inflation), the film was the fourth highest-grossing film of all-time when it was released, surpassed only by Gone with the Wind (1939), DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Ben-Hur went on to win 11 Oscars out of 12 nominations, including a third Best Director Academy Award for Willi. The 11 Oscars set a record since tied by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).

In the last decade of his career, he remade These Three as The Children's Hour (1961), a franker version of Hellman's play than his 1936 version. He was removed from his next project, when producer Martin Ransohoff fired Wyler from The Americanization of Emily (1964) because Wyler wanted to change Paddy Chayefsky's script. Rarely does a producer support a screenwriter over a director, particularly one of Wyler's caliber who was a pioneer among directors who molded a script and an entire production rather than just come on the set to oversee principal photography. The Oscar-winner Chayevsky, though, had contractual guarantees written into his contracts to protect his scripts, preserving his "authorship" of a movie, much as a dramatist with a play. The great Wyler, who is not recognized as an auteur by critics and cinema historians but who exerted authorship over his films, was replaced with the journeyman Arthur Hiller.

He was offered the chance to direct The Sound of Music (which broke Gone With the Wind's record as the top grossing movie in history, until it was replaced as the box office champ by The Godfather), but demurred. "I just can't bear to make a picture about all those nice Nazis," he told the press, but the truth was, he likely felt that being deaf in one ear, he was not an ideal director for a musical. He would cite his handicap several years later, as the reason he was reluctant to take over Funny Girl from Sidney Lumet.

Wyler went on to his adaptation of John Fowles' novel The Collector (1965), which proved to be his last artistic triumph. He received his 12th -- and last -- nomination as Best Director. At the 1966 Oscar ceremony, he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. (Ironically, Robert Wise -- the man who did take on The Sound of Music -- received the Thalberg Award the following year.)

He was reunited with Audrey Hepburn for the lightweight comedy How to Steal a Million (1966), which co-starred Peter O'Toole, and he had his last hit with Funny Girl (1968), taking over for Sidney Lumet. He clashed with his head-strong star, Barbra Streisand, but he molded the material to focus more and more on her, even at the cost of bits of business of other actors. La Streisand repeated Audrey Hepburn's success of 15 years earlier, winning an Oscar in her first lead role.

Wyler's last film was The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), an estimable failure that tackled the theme of racial prejudice, but which came out in the revolutionary time of Easy Rider (1969) and other such films. It was a time in which the studios had finally collapsed, down in by the audiences turning away from big-budget musicals that the studios produced in the wake of the success of The Sound of Music. Though he dreamed of making more pictures, Wyler's failing health kept him from taking on another film. Instead, he and his wife Margaret Tallichet, the mother of his five children, contented themselves with travel.

"It's a miserable life in Hollywood," said Wyler. "You're up at five or six o'clock in the morning to be ready to start shooting at nine. The working hours aren't arranged to suit the artists and the directors; they're for the convenience of the technicians. If you go to a party at night, you'll never find anyone there who's shooting a picture; they're all home in bed."

William Wyler died on July 27, 1981, in Beverly Hills, California, one of the most accomplished and honored filmmakers in history.

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