My three Ps: passion, patience, perseverance. You have to do this if you’ve…a filmmaker. You have to have passion if you’re going to deal with this subject. Patience, because it’s going to take a long time to get there. And perseverance: keep at it, keep at it.
— Robert Wise, 1998
Robert Wise loved the movies. He lived them. As a child growing up in Connersville, Indiana, he frequented the three small theaters in town on a regular basis. At 19, he headed West. And from a mailroom job at RKO, to four Academy Awards, to his death from heart failure on 14 September 2005 (four days after his 91st birthday), Wise’s name would be synonymous with “Hollywood.”
He doesn’t have the longest list of directing credits. As an editor, first for sound and then for film, he has a limited resume as well. He worked on the Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). After falling in with young wunderkind Orson Welles, Wise found himself cutting Citizen Kane (1941), for which he received his first Oscar nomination, and, a year later, The Magnificent Ambersons.
Though his work with Welles established his credentials, it was Val Lewton who gave Wise his first break behind the camera. Unhappy with the pace kept by Gunther Von Fritsch while directing 1944’s Curse of the Cat People, Lewton replaced him with Wise. With a journeyman-like work ethic, he quickly moved from B-pictures to mainstream fare. He helmed such outright masterworks as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (which earned Oscars for Best Picture and Director in 1961), The Haunting (1963), The Sound of Music (1965 Oscars for Picture and Director), and The Andromeda Strain (1971).
Wise picked his projects carefully. And he learned by doing, both as an apprentice and as a master. Meticulous and observant, he idolized early titans — John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks — and translated that fandom into an ambition to be as good as they were. And judging by the films he worked on or created in his seven decades in moviemaking, he learned very well indeed.
A Wise film is first and foremost focused on story. Wise loved to mull over scripts, looking for ways to translate obscure ideas and themes into visual terms. Though he has often been accused of having no signature style, but his interest was elsewhere. Wise adapted to his subject matter, believing the genre and the story dictated the manner in which the movie was made, not the other way around.
That is why The Day the Earth Stood Still has a straightforward, almost documentary-like look, combined with a neo-noir sensibility. It’s why Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) mimics the punchy rhythms of its central character, Rocky Graziano. In West Side Story, New York City is both magical and menacing, and in The Sound of Music, the Alps represent the ways that a sheltered, fantasyland-like Europe could be blind to the rise of Nazism.
Yet almost every Wise film was also grounded in a sense of “authenticity.” You believed the worlds he created. Antagonistic street gangs strutted on metropolitan streets as deadly dancers, while an “exotic” East reflected a lead character’s inner turmoil in The Sand Pebbles (1966). Even his flops — like The Hindenburg (1975), and most famously, the Julie Andrews vehicle Star! (1968) — were vividly detailed, alive with kinetic energy.
Wise’s attention to design details served him especially well when he was working with strong scripts. The Andromeda Strain features a technologically advanced bunker where the scientists do their work. The Haunting captures Shirley Jackson’s menacing Hill House perfectly, while I Want to Live! (1958) illustrates the oppressiveness of prison to underline Barbara Graham’s (Susan Hayward) terror and sadness. He was a notoriously collaborative director who welcomed input from anyone in the cast or crew. He knew that movies involved multiple visions.
After his “love it or hate it” work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Wise went into semi-retirement. He was President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1985 to 1988 (he also served as President of the Directors Guild of America from 1971 to 1975). He worked with young filmmakers at the American Film Institute, and even returned to directing for Rooftops (1989). It would be his last feature film. He eventually bid farewell to the medium he loved in 2000. After an efficient 21-day shoot for Showtime’s Rod Serling’s race allegory A Storm in Summer, Wise left moviemaking for good, at age 86.
It’s a testament to the indelible impression made by his films that Wise is so warmly remembered for a very selective oeuvre. His legend is born of his love for the movies. And his legacy will inspire generations to come.