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Filmmakers Who Matter: William Wyler

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Before I begin making my case for why William Wyler matters, I’d just like to draw some attention to a few differences between this installment of Filmmakers Who Matter and my previous “premiere” installment.

For starters, I’ve added a suggested filmography section at the end of the article to curb mentioning each or most of the films of a filmmaker’s career and treating the article like an overview or a bio.

Second, I’ve put more energy, I hope, into making a case for why a filmmaker “matters” as opposed to his or her biography, filmography, and so on. I can’t make a case for why a director or filmmaker matters without discussing his or her films and life somewhat, but I hope to be a little clearer as to my intentions with this series of articles.

Beginnings

William Wyler was born on July 1, 1902 in the French region of Alsace, which was then a part of the German Empire and is now a part of France. Wyler was related to Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, through his mother’s side of the family. These family connections would serve Wyler well, as he would become the youngest director on the Universal lot in 1925. In 1928, Wyler became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

As he began working on the Universal lot, he became quite prolific and started to become a bankable director for the studio. Wyler directed many solid films, but he was yet to hit his stride. Wyler signed with Samuel Goldwyn a while later and began to direct films of more significance, including Wuthering Heights and The Little Foxes.

1942-1945

Between 1942 and 1945, Wyler wound up serving as a major in the United States Army Air Corps. He directed a documentary during this time entitled Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. The film was produced by the United States Army Air Forces Motion Picture unit and depicted the next-to-last mission of the crew of the B-17 bomber aircraft. It was quite an achievement for Wyler.

Wyler would also win two Best Director Oscars during this time period. One award was for 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, a story of an English family adjusting to war in Europe. The other film, one of Wyler most thoughtful films, was 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. The latter received seven Academy Awards.

The '50s and '60s

After the war, Wyler began his most prolific run as an influential director. He helped Olivia de Havilland to her second Oscar with the 1949 film The Heiress. He then introduced American audiences to Audrey Hepburn in 1953’s Roman Holiday, a truly classic film which gave Hepburn her first Oscar for Best Actress. 1956’s Friendly Persuasion picked up the Golden Palm from Cannes, adding to Wyler’s impressive collection of awards and accolades. Throughout the '50s and '60s, he was among the most prolific and honoured directors working in Hollywood.

“Look to the west, Judah! Don't be a fool, look to Rome!”

In 1959, Wyler directed Ben Hur, a monstrous production which is likely the pinnacle of his directorial career. Ben Hur is, even by today’s standards, one of the largest and most menacing epics on screen. It picked up 11 Oscars, the biggest haul of its time and matched only twice since (Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King).

Wyler’s Ben Hur was a gamble for MGM that cost around $15 million. The gamble paid off, as the film grossed $75 billion, a whopping total for its time. Ben Hur’s massive production is often thought to be the stuff of legend, as the epic sword-and-sandals piece had over 300 sets spread out over about 340 acres of land. The chariot race still stands out as one of the most iconic scenes in film history.

After Ben Hur

Wyler won the Irving Thalberg Award for career achievement in 1965. His legendary career was winding down, though, and he began to make fewer films. The Collector, a 1965 movie, earned Wyler yet another Best Director nomination. Following that, he worked with Hepburn again in How to Steal a Million, a 1966 crime comedy. His great work with women continued with 1968’s Funny Girl, a Barbra Streisand vehicle that won her the Oscar for Best Actress. Wyler’s last film was 1970’s little known crime drama The Liberation of L.B. Jones.

Directed by William Wyler

On July 24, 1981, Wyler did an interview with his daughter, producer Catherine Wyler, for a PBS documentary entitled Directed by William Wyler. This synopsis of his prolific career discussed his vision of a possible next film, something he tentatively titled “Going Home.” William Wyler died three days later of a heart attack, ending the career of one of Hollywood’s truly great talents.

Why William Wyler Matters

The impact of William Wyler on the film industry is unquestionable. He has the distinction of having directed three Best Director Academy Award winners (Ben Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver), which ties him with Frank Capra. The only director to have won more times is John Ford.

Wyler matters because of his ability to hop soundly from genre to genre without missing a beat. His films are as diverse as possible and mould excellently into a formidable career. Wyler started out with the accolades of the Cahiers du cinema, an influential French magazine that helped re-invent the idea of the auteur. The Cahiers re-evaluated him continually throughout his career, never fully having the ability to pigeonhole the gifted filmmaker into a category ripe for critique. As a result, Wyler was on the outs with the more elite critics.

He didn’t care. Wyler unapologetically existed, along with his good friends Billy Wilder and John Huston, in a school of filmmaking that firmly believed in the power of the script. Wyler worked to uphold his scripts, promote his actors and actresses (which obviously worked to tremendous success), and create films that moved from genre to genre with the sake of art being the utmost importance.

Wyler’s masterstrokes as a director are seen in his ability to create the drama needed from the script in order to make the film effective. His command of the dramatic form is unparalleled and his ability to translate and actually feel the structure and substance of the script is impeccable. Writers loved William Wyler because they knew he’d love them back.

Wyler matters because he did the “big” movie better than almost anyone (save for maybe David Lean). His films have more meaty dramatic components, simply as a result of the directorial architecture, than many others. Wyler hands his actors and actresses the world on a platter, giving them the opportunity to shine brightly with the spotlight glowing. Streisand, Hepburn, De Havilland, Heston, Bogart, Olivier, Peck, and others all reveled in what Wyler was able to provide. Some of those performers’ greatest “big” scenes took place in a William Wyler movie.

In a day and age in which directorial vision can often overindulge itself and ruin a perfectly good screenplay, it’s important to note that William Wyler was a director that cared more for the material than he cared for his own accolades. He still won a hell of a lot of Oscars, clearly, and his attention to detail and love for the material he shot was apparent in each and every single one of his films. Wyler had the ability to create great performances, even out of unlikely performers, and has the wherewithal to adapt lines and delivery to make a greater impact. His nose for film and, perhaps more accurately, for what works within the realm of film made him one of the true greats of all time.

Suggested Filmography

  • These Three – 1936
  • Jezebel – 1938
  • Wuthering Heights – 1939
  • The Little Foxes – 1941
  • Mrs. Miniver – 1942
  • The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress – 1944
  • The Best Years of Our Lives – 1946
  • The Heiress – 1949
  • Carrie – 1952
  • Roman Holiday – 1953
  • Friendly Persuasion – 1956
  • The Big Country – 1958
  • Ben Hur – 1959
  • How to Steal a Million – 1966
  • Funny Girl – 1968
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