Nationality: American. Born: Willy Wyler in Mulhouse (Mülhausen), Alsace-Lorraine, 1 July 1902; became U.S. citizen, 1928. Family: Married 1) Margaret Sullavan, 1934 (divorced 1936); 2) Margaret Tallichet, 1938, four children. Military Service: U.S. Army Air Corps, 1942–45; major. Career: Travelled to America at invitation of cousin Carl Laemmle, 1920; worked in publicity department for
Universal in New York, then transferred to Universal City, Hollywood, 1921; assistant director at Universal, from 1924; directed first film, Crook Buster, 1925, and first feature, Lazy Lightning, 1926; signed contract with Samuel Goldwyn, 1936; helped to found Committee for the First Amendment to counteract Hollywood investigations by House Un-American Activities Committee, 1947; "Hommage à William Wyler" organized by Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque française, 1966; retired from directing, 1972. Awards: Oscar for Best Direction, for Mrs. Miniver, 1942; Oscar for Best Direction and New York Film Critics Award for Best Direction, for The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946; Oscar for Best Direction, for Ben Hur, 1959; Irving G. Thalberg Award, 1965; American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, 1976. Died: 29 July 1981.
Films as Director:
The Gunless Bad Man; Ridin' for Love; Fire Barrier; Don'tShoot; The Pinnacle Rider; Martin of the Mounted; LazyLightning; Stolen Ranch
Two Fister; Kelly Gets His Man; Tenderfoot Courage; TheSilent Partner; Galloping Justice; The Haunted Homestead; The Lone Star; The Ore Riders; The Home Trail;Gun Justice; Phantom Outlaw; Square Shooter; The HorseTrader; Daze in the West; Blazing Days; Hard Fists; TheBorder Cavalier; Straight Shootin'; Desert Dust
Thunder Riders; Anybody Here Seen Kelly
The Shakedown; The Love Trap
Hell's Heroes; The Storm
A House Divided
Tom Brown of Culver
Her First Mate; Counselor at Law
Glamour; The Gay Deception
These Three; Dodsworth; Come and Get It
The Westerner; The Letter
The Little Foxes
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Desperate Hours
The Big Country
The Children's Hour
How to Steal a Million
The Liberation of L.B. Jones
By WYLER: articles—
"William Wyler: Director with a Passion and a Craft," with Hermine Isaacs, in Theater Arts (New York), February 1947.
"Interview at Cannes," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), July/August 1965.
Interview with Charles Higham, in Action (Los Angeles), September/October 1973.
"Wyler on Wyler," with Alan Cartnel, in Inter/View (New York), March 1974.
"Dialogue on Film," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1976.
"No Magic Wand," in Hollywood Directors: 1941–76, edited by Richard Koszarski, New York, 1977.
Interview with P. Carcassonne and J. Fieschi, in Cinématographe (Paris), March/April 1981.
Lecture excerpts in Films and Filming (London), October 1981.
On WYLER: books—
Drinkwater, John, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle, New York, 1930.
Griffith, Richard, Samuel Goldwyn: The Producer and His Films, New York, 1956.
Reisz, Karel, editor, William Wyler, an Index, London, 1958.
Madsen, Axel, William Wyler, New York, 1973.
Kolodiazhnaia, V., Uil'iam Uailer, Moscow, 1975.
Anderegg, Michael A., William Wyler, Boston, 1979.
Kern, Sharon, William Wyler: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1984.
Fink, Guido, William Wyler, Florence, 1989.
On WYLER: articles—
Griffith, Richard, "Wyler, Wellman, and Huston," in Films inReview (New York), February 1950.
Reisz, Karel, "The Later Films of William Wyler," in Sequence (London), no. 13, 1951.
"Personality of the Month," in Films and Filming (London), July 1957.
Heston, Charlton, "The Questions No One Asks about Willy," in Films and Filming (London), August 1958.
Reid, John Howard, "A Little Larger than Life," in Films andFilming (London), February 1960.
Reid, John Howard, "A Comparison of Size," in Films and Filming (London), March 1960.
Sarris, Andrew, "Fallen Idols," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.
Brownlow, Kevin, "The Early Days of William Wyler," in Film (London), Autumn 1963.
Heston, Charlton, "Working with William Wyler," in Action (Los Angeles), January/February 1967.
Hanson, Curtis, "William Wyler," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Summer 1967.
Carey, Gary, "The Lady and the Director: Bette Davis and William Wyler," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1970.
Doeckel, Ken, "William Wyler," in Films in Review (New York), October 1971.
Higham, Charles, "William Wyler," in Action (Los Angeles), September/October 1973.
Phillips, Gene, "William Wyler," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1976.
Heston, Charlton, "The Ben-Hur Journal," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1976.
Swindell, Larry, "A Life in Film," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1976.
Renaud, T., "William Wyler: 'L'Homme qui ne fit pas jamais un mauvais film,"' in Cinéma (Paris), September 1981.
On WYLER: film—
Directed by William Wyler (Slesin), 1986.
* * *
William Wyler's career is an excellent argument for nepotism. Wyler went to work for "Uncle" Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, and learned the movie business as assistant director and then director of programmers, mainly westerns. One of his first important features, A House Divided, demonstrates many of the qualities that mark his films through the next decades. A transparent imitation of Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms, it contains evidence of the staging strategies that identify Wyler's distinctive mise-en-scène. The film's premise holds particular appeal for a director who sees drama in claustrophobic interiors, the actors held in expressive tension by their shifting spatial relationships to each other, the decor, and the camera. In A House Divided Wyler extracts that tension from the dynamics implicit in the film's principal set: the downstairs room that confines the crippled father (Walter Huston) and the stairs leading to the landing between the rooms of the son (Kent Douglass) and the young stepmother (Helen Chandler). The stairway configuration is favored by Wyler for the opportunity it gives him to stack the agents of the drama and to fill the frame both vertically and in depth. When he later collaborates with cinematographer Gregg Toland, the potential of that depth and height is enhanced through the use of varying degrees of hard and soft focus. (Many critics, who are certainly unfamiliar with Wyler's early work, have unjustly credited Toland for the depth of staging that characterizes the partnership.)
The implications of focus in Wyler's stylistics go far beyond lighting procedures, lenses, or even staging itself. Focus directs the viewer's attention to varieties of information within the field, whatever its shape or extent. Focus gives simultaneous access to discordant planes, characters, and objects that challenge us to achieve a full, fluctuating reading of phenomena. André Bazin, in his important essay on Wyler in the French edition of What Is Cinema?, speaks of the director's "democratic" vision, his way of taking in the wholeness of a field in the unbroken time and space of the "planséquence," a shot whose duration and complexity of staging goes far beyond the measure of the conventional shot. Bazin opposes this to the analytic montage of Soviet editing. In doing so he perhaps underestimates the kind of control that Wyler's deep field staging exerts upon the viewer, but he does suggest the richness of the visual text in Wyler's major films.
Counselor at Law is a significant test of Wyler's staging. The Broadway origins of the property are not disguised in the film; instead, they are made into a virtue. The movement through the law firm's outer office, reception room, and private spaces reflects a fluidity that is a function of the camera's mobility and a challenge to the fixed frame of the proscenium. Wyler's tour de force rivals that of the film's star, John Barrymore. Director and actor animate the attorney's personal and professional activities in a hectic, ongoing present, sweeping freely through the sharply delineated (and therefore sharply perceived) vectors of the cinematic/theatrical space.
Wyler's meticulousness and Samuel Goldwyn's insistence on quality productions resulted in the series of films, often adaptations of prestigious plays, that most fully represent the director's method. In Dodsworth, the erosion of a marriage is captured in the opening of the bedroom door that separates husband and wife; the staircase of These Three delimits the public and private spaces of a film about rumor and intimacy; the elaborate street set of Dead End is examined from a dizzying variety of camera angles that create a geometry of urban life; the intensity of The Little Foxes is sustained through the focal distances that chart the shape of family ties and hatreds.
After the war, the partnership of Wyler and Toland is crowned by The Best Years of Our Lives, a film whose subject (the situation of returning servicemen) is particularly pertinent, and whose structure and staging are the most personal in the director's canon.
In his tireless search for the perfect shot, Wyler was known as the scourge of performers, pushing them through countless retakes and repetitions of the same gesture. Since performance in his films is not pieced together in the editing room but is developed in complex blockings and shots of long duration, Wyler required a high degree of concentration on the part of the actors. Laurence Olivier, who was disdainful of the medium prior to his work in Wuthering Heights, credits Wyler for having revealed to him the possibilities of the movies. But it is Bette Davis who defines the place of the star actor in a Wyler film. The three projects she did with Wyler demonstrate how her particular energies both organize the highly controlled mise-enscène and are contained within it. For Jezebel she won her second Academy Award. In The Letter, an exercise in directorial tyranny over the placement of seemingly every element in its highly charged frames, the viewer senses a total correspondence between the focus exercised by director and performer.
During the last decades of Wyler's career, many of the director's gifts, which flourished in contexts of extreme dramatic tension and the exigencies of studio shooting, were dissipated in excessively grandiose properties and "locations." There were, however, exceptions. Wyler's presence is strongly felt in the narrow staircase of The Heiress and the dingy station house of Detective Story. He even manages to make the final shootout of The Big Country adhere to the narrowest of gulches, thereby reducing the dimensions of the title to his familiar focal points. But the epic scope of Ben Hur and the ego of Barbra Streisand (in Funny Girl) escape the compact economies of the director's boxed-in stackings and plane juxtapositions. Only in The Collector, a film that seems to define enclosure (a woman is kept prisoner in a cellar for most of its duration) does Wyler find a congenial property. In it he proves again that the real expanse of cinema is measured by its frames.
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.
Germany, France, and Hollywood
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.
Worked with Producer Samuel Goldwyn
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.
Enjoyed Numerous Postwar Successes
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.
Won Third Academy Award
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). □
WYLER, WILLIAM (1902–1981), U.S. film director and producer. Born in Mulhouse, Alsace, Wyler emigrated to the United States in 1920 with his uncle, Carl *Laemmle, head of Universal Pictures. In 1925 he directed the first of 50 two-reel Westerns, starting his long series of major works, first with Universal and then in association with other studios. An early success was the film version of Elmer *Rice's play Counsellor-at-Law (1933), as well as the adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth (Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1936). He broke new ground with These Three (1936), the successful adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, a play with a lesbian theme. Four more milestones in his directorial career were Jezebel (produced, 1938); Wuthering Heights (Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1939); The Letter (Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1940); and The Little Foxes (Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1941). During World War ii he served as an officer with the U.S. Air Force, where he made the documentary The Memphis Belle and the Navy film The Fighting Lady, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary.
After the war, Wyler directed such distinguished films as The Heiress (produced; Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director, 1949); Detective Story (produced; Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1951); Roman Holiday (produced; Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director, 1953); The Desperate Hours (produced, 1955); Friendly Persuasion (produced; Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director, 1956); The Big Country (produced, 1958); The Collector (Oscar nomination for Best Director, 1965); How to Steal a Million (1966); Funny Girl (1968); and his final film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970).
Wyler was among Hollywood's foremost filmmakers and was the recipient of many honors, including three Academy Awards, for directing Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). In 1966 he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, for the consistently high quality of his motion picture production. In 1976 he received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.
R. Freiman, The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur (1959); A. Madsen, William Wyler, The Authorized Biography (1973); M. Andregg, William Wyler (1979); B. Bowman, Master Space: Film Images of Capra, Lubitsch, Sternberg, and Wyler (1992); J. Herman, A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler (1995).
[G. Eric Hauck /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]