Whether directing motion pictures depicting heart-stopping chariot races in Ben Hur or heart-rendering depictions of military servicemen attempting to return to post-war normalcy in The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler (1902-1981) is recognized by critics as among the 20th century's best American film directors and is among several directors credited with raising the level of American film from popular entertainment to art.
Wyler is noted for the consistently high quality of his films, which focused on a wide range of themes, settings, and subject matter. While most Hollywood film directors of his era are associated with a specific genre—film noir, screwball comedies, Westerns, historical dramas, social dramas, or war films—Wyler's body of work features critically acclaimed films in many areas. He is considered to be the first American director to select his own projects, often commissioning scripts several years before attempting to make them and then spending at least two weeks rehearsing actors and camera operators before beginning filming. The resulting films proved to be among the most popular and critically admired films of Hollywood's Golden Era into the 1960s because of their intricately choreographed and tasteful camera work. Wyler captured some of the best performances of the time, including those of actors such as Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, John Barrymore, Henry Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Huston, Kirk Douglas, and Greer Garson. All told, 14 actors received Academy Award nominations in Wyler films, which remains a Hollywood record. Many of these performances resulted from the director's notorious insistence on numerous shots of the same scene until he was satisfied with the actor's presentation. Wyler was nominated for 12 Academy awards for best direction, more than any other director, and actually won three times, a feat bested only by John Ford, who won four times.
Wyler was born in Mulhouse, Alsace, Germany, on July 1, 1902, to Jewish parents and studied in Germany, Switzerland, and France. His early interest in American culture was gratified when he met a distant relative, Carl Laemmle, in Paris. The president of Universal Pictures in the United States, Laemmle invited Wyler to work as a publicist for the company's New York office in 1920. In 1921 Wyler moved to Hollywood, eventually landing work as an assistant director. In 1924 he directed the two-reel Western Crook Buster, before directing his first feature-length film, Lazy Lightning in 1925.
With the advent of sound, Wyler became one of Universal's top directors of "talkies," beginning with 1929's Love Trap. He continued his string of popular films for Universal with 1930's Hell's Heroes and the 1933 John Barrymore film, Counsellor-at-Law. In 1935, he employed a script from Preston Sturges for The Good Fairy, starring his first wife Margaret Sullivan.
In 1936 Wyler signed a contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn. The pair's relationship resulted in a ten-year run of critical and financially successful dramas, including three films scripted by playwright Lillian Hellman: 1936's These Three, 1937's Dead End, and 1941's The Little Foxes; an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's novel of a disintegrating marriage titled Dodsworth; a 1936 collaboration with Howard Hawk's on the adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel Come and Get It; 1938's Jezebel; 1940's The Westerner and The Letter; and the 1942 film that won him his first Academy Award, Mrs. Miniver. Each of these films is acknowledged as classics of American cinema due to Wyler's deft handling of literary themes in a cinematic context. Mrs. Miniver, in particular, is widely admired for its contribution to the morale of the Allied efforts in World War II through its depiction of an English family struggling to survive the travails of war.
During the 1930s and 1940s, film historians note that Wyler expanded his repertoire of camera movements among other directorial techniques to subtly underscore the literary nature of his films while continuing to elicit some of American cinema's best performances. Among the most noted qualities of his films is that he encouraged his actors to convey the realism of their characters, rather than expose themselves as Hollywood stars simply playing a role. Wyler enhanced this approach by determining the best camera angles with which to capture his actors' performances.
Wyler spent part of the World War II years directing documentaries. He traveled to Europe in late 1942 and joined B17 bombing raids in France and German. He put these experiences and the footage he shot into the films The Memphis Belle and The Fighting Lady.
Wyler's first film after returning from World War II often is considered his best, earning him his second Academy Award. Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, and a non-actor named Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives prompted film critic James Agee to write in Agee on Film: "Wyler has always seemed to me an exceedingly sincere and good director; he now seems one of the few great ones. He has come back from the war with a style of great purity, directness, and warmth, about as cleanly devoid of mannerism, haste, superfluous motion, aesthetic or emotional over-reaching, as any I know; and I felt complete confidence, as I watched this work, that he could have handled any degree to which this material might have been matured as well as or even better that the job he was given to do." Agee continued to compliment Wyler's direction of Russell, who had actually lost both hands in World War II: "His direction of the nonprofessional, Harold Russell, is just an exciting proof, on the side, of the marvels a really good artist can perform in collaboration with a really good non-actor; much more of the time it was his job to get new and better things out of professionals than they had ever shown before."
Wyler formed Liberty Films with directors Frank Capra and George Stevens after World War II. The studio produced only one film, Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life. In 1949 actor Olivia de Havilland won an Academy Award for her performance in Wyler's The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James's novel Washington Square that featured a musical score by composer Aaron Copeland as well as what many critics consider to be among the best performances of actor Montgomery Clift. In 1951, Wyler adapted Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play Detective Story to film, starring Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker. The following year, he adapted Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie as the Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones vehicle Carrie.
In 1947 Wyler assisted in the founding of the Committee for the First Amendment in response to Congress's House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of suspected communists in Hollywood. In 1953 he used a script written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to film Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and marking the starring debut of Audrey Hepburn, who won an Academy award for best actress. In 1955 Wyler adapted Joseph Hayes's novel and play The Desperate Hours for a film noir reuniting him with his Dead End star Humphrey Bogart. In 1956, he adapted Jessamyn West's novel about Quakers during the U.S. Civil War, Friendly Persuasion, into a film that reunited him with his The Westerner star, Gary Cooper. He employed Peck and Charlton Heston for his next film, The Big Country, which resulted in an Academy award for best supporting actor for folksinger Burl Ives.
In 1959 Wyler released his epic Ben Hur, which some film sources claim as one of the greatest films of all time. In addition to the film's epic sweep and incredibly detailed sets and action sequences, the film succeeds as a character study of a Palestinian Jew during the time of Jesus Christ and the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. The film netted Wyler his third Academy award and went on to win an unprecedented 11 Academy awards, including best actor for Charlton Heston.
Wyler directed several more films before retiring in 1970. Of these, The Collector, an adaptation of the John Fowles novel, and 1968's Funny Girl, which earned Barbra Streisand an Academy award for best actress, are considered the best. In 1965 Wyler received the Irving G. Thalberg Award for Career Achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After his retirement, he was presented with the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. During his long, fruitful career, Wyler's films received nine best director nominations and 36 best actor or best actress nominations. He died on July 28, 1981, in Beverly Hills, California.
Agee, James, Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, Random House, 2000.
Sarris, Andrew, editor, The St. James Guide to Film Directors, St. James Press, 1998.
Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/ (February 28, 2002).
Reel Classics, http://www.reelclassics.com/ (February 28, 2002).
"William Wyler," American Masters, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/ (February 28, 2002). □