Wednesday, March 27, 2013

William Wyler – Hollywood Legends – March 2013


William Wyler is one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs. Over the course of his directing career, spanning five decades, he directed three Best Picture Winners, while winning three Best Director Oscars (on twelve nominations). Only three filmmakers have three or more Best Director wins (John Ford, 4, and Frank Capra, 3, are the other two). His twelve nominations are also the most all-time (Billy Wilder is second with eight). Wyler is also remembered for working with a slew of great actors and actresses (he worked with Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn three times each, for example).

Early Career, 1920s:

Wyler was born in the year 1902 in Mulhouse, Alsace (then part of the German-Empire), but after WWI he decided to leave Europe and come to America. He worked as a messenger in New York for Universal Picture, which a cousin of his, Carl Laemmle, founded.

He then came out to Hollywood in 1923 with dreams of being a director, but first had to start at the bottom working in the swing gang (cleaning stages and building and taking down sets). He began to work his way up becoming a second assistant editor and then a third assistant director. By 1925 he had become the youngest director at Universal Pictures, directing Westerns.

This was during the silent era of cinema, and Wyler garnered tons of experience directing over thirty films in four years. His first takie was The Shakedown. Proving himself a solid director, he started to be given higher profile films with bigger actors.


Initial Acclaim, 1930s:

Wyler scored his first critical hit with 1933’s Counsellor at Law starring John Barrymore. The film is about a successful lawyer who has to suddenly face his background (his Jewish heritage and poverty-stricken past) when he learns his wife has been cheating on him. Paul Muni (who starred in the original Scarface) turned down the role because he did not want to play a Jewish character. However, Wyler took on the film, being of Jewish decent himself.

Wyler next left Universal Pictures to work with Samuel Goldwyn first making Dodsworth with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and David Niven. The film is about a retired couple that goes on vacation, the husband only agreeing to please his wife who is vain and uses the trip to flirt with other men. It is one of his most enduring and beloved films of the period. Wyler received his first Best Director nomination for the film.

With Dead End, Wyler made his first gangster film (a very popular genre at the time) about an unemployed architect who interacts with well-known gangster Baby Face Martin over the course of a day in their East Side neighborhood. It stars Humphrey Bogart (in one of his best early roles). The film is also notable due to it being one of his early collaborations with cinematographer Gregg Toland (who is maybe the greatest in cinema history – developing deep focus). Wyler would collaborate with Toland six times (Toland winning his only Oscar for Wyler’s Wuthering Heights despite his brilliant career, including: The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives).

By 1938, Wyler had developed a tendency for doing a lot of takes – Bette Davis nicknaming him ’90-take Wyler’. Along with Wyler doing a lot of takes, he also had a reputation for garnering excellent performances out of his actors. Working with Davis for the first time, he directed Jezebel, which also starred Henry Fonda. The film is about a headstrong Southern woman who loses her fiancé due to her stubborn vanity and pride. However, she vows to get him back. Davis won a Best Actress Oscar for the film – she is one of thirteen to win Oscars under Wyler’s direction.

For his last great film of the 1930s, he directed an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s gothic novel Wuthering Heights about the unfortunate tale of lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe. The film stars Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven. Olivier was one of Britain’s most accomplished and admired stage actors when he first came to Hollywood to make this film; however, despite his talent, he credits Wyler with teaching him how to act in films on this project (he was nominated for an Oscar for the film, but did not win).


One of Hollywood’s Finest Filmmakers and War, 1940s:

In 1940, Wyler returned to his cinematic roots with the western The Westerner starting Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. The film is about a self-appointed hanging judge in Texas and a saddle tramp who opposes his policy against homesteaders. Despite their differences they develop a friendship.

Next, he directed the film-noir crime drama The Letter, again working with Bette Davis. The film is about a wife who shoots a man to death and claims self-defense. However, a letter surfaces and with it her potential undoing. The film is also interesting as it takes place in colonial Singapore, which gives it a different feel and flare (much how Casablanca taking place in Morocco adds a certain edge to the film).

Wyler then directed one of his best films in The Little Foxes, again starring Bette Davis (their final collaboration together). It is also the film debut of Teresa Wright (who would work with Wyler three times). It is about a ruthless, wealthy Southern clan who poisons their region of the Deep South with their greed and scheming.

With Mrs. Miniver, Wyler won his first Best Director Oscar and the film Best Picture (winning six in total). It stars Greer Garson (who also won an Oscar for Best Actress), Walter Pidgeon, and Teresa Wright (who won an Oscar as well for Best Supporting Actress – she was nominated for Oscars in her first three performances, winning one). The film is about the plight of Britain in the first few months of WWII as shown through a middle-class family. To some extent, it can be viewed as a propaganda film rallying support for England – and it did. Winston Churchill claimed that the film had done more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers. The film is very dramatically powerful with great characters. It is still among the best war films ever made.

Becoming a U.S. citizen in 1928, Wyler enlisted and served as a major in the United States Army Air Force during the war. He made two documentaries: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and Thunderbolt. During the filming of The Memphis Belle, Wyler and his crew accompanied the aircraft personnel into battle – Wyler lost his ability to hear in one ear and one of his cinematographers was aboard a plane that was shot down and perished (his name was Harold J. Tannenbaum).

Returning from the war, Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives, which seems to perfectly capture the mood and struggle of returning veterans to an America that had been mostly untouched by the horrors of war. It is essential viewing for those interested in WWII. Wyler assembled a fantastic cast with Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, and Virginia Mayo. The film won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (as well as acting Oscars for March and Russell). It also features standout work from cinematographer Gregg Toland.

Moving on from WWII, Wyler next directed The Heiress about a young, wealthy woman who somewhat naively falls for a handsome man who her emotionally controlling father believes is only interested in her for her fortune. It stars Olivia de Havilland (who won an Oscar for Best Actress) and rising star Montgomery Clift. It is an excellent romance drama.


Discovering Audrey and Making an Epic, 1950s:

Wyler had made a name for himself during the 1940s, with two Best Pictures, as one of Hollywood’s biggest talents behind the camera. For his first project of the 1950s he returned to film-noir with the crime drama Detective Story starring Kirk Douglas. The film is about a day in the life of a hard-noised detective.

For his next picture, Wyler decided to shoot a film on location in Rome – something very rare during the studio era of Hollywood (location shooting). The film was Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy about a young princess who runs away to experience a single day in the life of a normal person. She ends up spending the day with a newspaper man who initially just wants the scoop. In addition to starring Gregory Peck, it also introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn (who did have a few small roles prior, but this is the film that launched her career). Wyler has originally wanted Jean Simmons to play the lead, and almost cancelled the film when she was unavailable. However, he saw Hepburn’s screen test and was blown away, casting her immediately despite her limited film experience. During filming, co-star Peck knew that she was fantastic and informed Wyler that she would win an Oscar for her work and that he should put her name ahead of his in the billing – Wyler did and Hepburn did win her first Oscar. Even now, sixty years later, Roman Holiday is the standard by which romantic comedies are judged.

Wyler then again returned to film-noir with the crime drama The Desperate Hours, reuniting him with stars Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. The film about three convicts who terrorize a suburban household has a dark edge to it, and is a great thriller. And then, he made another Western with Gary Cooper called Friendly Persuasion. It is about an Indiana Quaker family in 1862 whose religious values are tried when Southern troops pass their territory. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.

Sticking with westerns, Wyler next made his first epic with The Big Country, about a New England ship captain who arrives in the Old West to marry only to become embroiled in a feud between two families over a piece of land. It stars Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives (who won an Oscar), and Charles Bickford. What makes this western feel epic is Wyler’s ability to present the landscapes as huge bodies of wilderness and the fantastic drama between the characters. The square-off between Peck and Heston is brilliant (as is Peck’s performance).

Next, Wyler made maybe his greatest masterpiece – or at least his biggest – with the grand epic Ben-Hur. The film is a massive, lavish production in the tradition of Hollywood’s best epics (like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind). The classic story is that of Ben-Hur a Jewish prince who is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend only to regain his freedom and come back for revenge. It won eleven Oscars on twelve nominations (eleven Oscars is still a record, though Titanic and The Return of the King tied it), including Best Picture and Best Director. Charlton Heston stars (giving the best performance of his career and winning an Oscar) with a brilliant supporting cast featuring Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, and Hugh Griffith (who also won an Oscar). This is a must-see for all cinema fans.


Winding Down a Career, 1960s:

Leaving epics behind, Wyler collaborated again with Audrey Hepburn remaking his own film These Three based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. These Three, released in the 1930s, was stripped of much of its social dramatic power, but with the remake Wyler could stick much closer to the play. It also stars Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. The social drama is about a troublemaking student at an all-girls school who accuses two teachers of being lesbians. The film is built on its wonderful dramatic performances and (sadly) still seems to have a social relevance today (as people’s ignorance, hate, and fear seem to still reign the day). At the time of its release in 1961, the film’s subject matter was very sensitive and risqué.

For his next film Wyler made something completely different from all his other films with the dark thriller The Collector about a man who kidnaps a young woman and holds her against her will just for the pleasure of having her around (it reminds me of the Peter Seller’s film Hoffman that would come out five years later, though that film is not nearly as dark or creepy). It stars Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar.

Again doing something completely different to his last project, Wyler made How to Steal a Million next, a romantic comedy/heist film (and one of my personal favorites in the genre). Wyler filmed on location in Paris with stars Audrey Hepburn (her third and final collaboration with Wyler), Peter O’Toole, Eli Wallach, and Hugh Griffith. The film is about the daughter of a great art forger who enlists a thief to help her steal her family’s own piece of art on display in a Paris museum to save her father from jail – as the piece is to be inspected by a specialist sure to discover its inauthenticity. Initially, Wyler intended the film to be his follow up to Roman Holiday with Hepburn starring opposite Gregory Peck. He also envisioned a grittier/darker tone and had approached Stanley Kubrick to help, having seen and liked The Killing. As it is, How to Steal a Million is a fun light film that soars on the great chemistry and performances of Hepburn and O’Toole (and Hepburn and Griffith who play daughter and father).

For his last film of note (and second to last of his career), Wyler made the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Funny Girl, with Barbara Streisand making her film debut (reprising her role from Broadway). The film is maybe not the best in what was probably the golden age of big Hollywood musicals (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! all winning Best Picture Oscars during the 1960s), but it is one of the most beloved – mostly thanks to Streisand who won an Oscar for her performance. It also starred Omar Sharif and is about the life of Jewish comedienne Fannie Brice and her rise from the slums of the Lower East Side to the heights of stardom.


Career Highlights:

1)      Counsellor at Law (1933) – director (DVD, Trailer)
2)      Dodsworth (1936) – director (DVD, Trailer)
3)      Dead End (1937) – director (DVD, Trailer)
4)      Jezebel (1938) – director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
5)      Wuthering Heights (1939) – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
6)      The Letter (1940) – director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
7)      The Westerner (1940) – director (DVD, Trailer)
8)      The Little Foxes (1941)* – director (DVD, Trailer)
9)      Mrs. Miniver (1942)* – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
10)   The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)* – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
11)   The Heiress (1949) – director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
12)   Detective Story (1951) – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
13)   Roman Holiday (1953)* – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
14)   The Desperate Hours (1955) – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
15)   The Big Country (1958) – director, producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
16)   Ben-Hur (1959)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
17)   The Children’s Hour (1961) – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
18)   The Collector (1965) – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
19)   How to Steal a Million (1966) – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
20)   Funny Girl (1968) – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

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