The 100 Essential Directors Part 10

Josef Von Sternberg to Zhang Yimou

by PopMatters Staff

5 September 2011


William Wyler

William Wyler
(1902 - 1981)

Three Key Films: The Little Foxes (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953)

Underrated: The Collector (1965) This film has been largely forgotten by audiences used to the depravities portrayed on TV crime shows and who view the terror of The Collector as mild. For its time, it offered a rare insight into the mind of a psychopath, while providing a tense psychological war between geeky Frederick Clegg (Terence Stamp) and his kidnap victim Miranda (Samantha Eggar).

Unforgettable: Many would list the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) as Wyler’s greatest scene. Yet, it is in the more subtle scenes of Mrs. Miniver that Wyler’s brilliance is most evident. Huddled together in the dim light of their bomb shelter, Mr. and Mrs. Miniver (Walter Pidgeon, Greer Garson) try to lift their children’s spirits as they listen to German bombs destroy the English countryside. The scene presents the contrasts between wartime and normalcy, as well as adult knowledge versus childhood innocence.

The Legend: It is easy to overlook Wyler as one of film’s great directors, as he has no clear overriding vision or directorial style. Nor did he favor a particular genre of film—epics, musicals, romantic comedies, war dramas, thrillers, Westerns, crime stories, and character studies all got the Wyler touch. Scorsese’s films are “gritty”, Bergman’s are intellectual, but Wyler’s are seemingly all over the place. Yet, it is because he has ventured into such an array of styles, delivering dozens of good to classic films, that his contributions to film are note-worthy. He demonstrated that a director with an appreciation for good story-telling could venture into any genre of film. Such versatility allowed Wyler to receive a record 12 Oscar nominations for Best Director (he won three).

Nonetheless, Wyler’s movies carry a dominant theme: the growth of the lead(s) by overcoming challenges and facing personal shortcomings. In his first feature, Lazy Lightning (1926), idle cowboy Lance (Art Acord) is forced into manhood when someone he cares for is stricken with a fatal disease, a heavy storyline for a silent Western. Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) in The Heiress (1949), Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), Funny Girl‘s Fanny Brice (1968, Barbra Streisand), and Jezebel (1938, Bette Davis) are just a sampling of the characters who get their ideal worlds shaken and emerge stronger for the experience.

It wasn’t just characters who got their worlds shaken; the actors portraying them were often rattled by Wyler’s insistence on perfection, which earned him the nickname “90-take Wyler”. Wyler subjected cast and crew to dozens of retakes of scenes, providing little insight into what he was looking for beyond “Do it better.” They did, and countless actors credit Wyler with pulling from them their greatest performances. Still, he felt there was one film that he didn’t get “right”, These Three (1936), which didn’t feature the lesbian theme of the play it was based on due to censor interference, so he remade the film 25 years later under its original title, The Children’s Hour. It was the biggest retake of his career, indicative of the perfectionist he was. Michael Abernethy


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Double Take: The African Queen (1951)

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"What a time they had, Charlie and Rosie. They'll never lack for stories to tell their grandchildren. And what a time we had at Double Take discussing the spiritual and romantic journey of the African Queen.

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