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William Wyler: The Invisible Hand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I’m here to make good pictures. If I don’t see it, I won’t touch it. I may not make a good picture, but I still gotta believe in it!

--William Wyler

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William Wyler was the invisible director. He felt the director’s hand shouldn’t be evident in a movie. “It’s 80% script and 20% you get great actors,” he once said. “There’s nothing else to it.”

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Wyler, the subject of an upcoming tribute and retrospective, was selling himself short. A master craftsman, he was considered one of the top directors in Hollywood from 1933 until 1968, winning Academy Awards for best director for 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver,” 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” and 1959’s " Ben-Hur.” All of those films also won Oscars for best film. He was drawn to the written word, adapting such novels and plays as “Wuthering Heights” (1939), “Dodsworth” (1936), “Ben-Hur” (1959), “Detective Story” (1951) and “Funny Girl” (1968) for the big screen.

Catherine Wyler, the director’s daughter who was named after the “Wuthering Heights” heroine, says her father had two criteria when it came to picking projects. Wyler, who directed the 1986 documentary “Directed by William Wyler,” said her father “loved writers. He enjoyed the process of working with writers and good writing, so I think that is often what led him to plays. But on the other hand, he was easily bored and he always wanted to follow whatever the last picture was with something really different.”

Wyler fell out of favor in the 1960s when critics began to praise the work of “auteur” directors such as Sam Fuller, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, who put their personal stamp on each film. Catherine Wyler says her father was hurt by the backlash. “That was a really hard time for him because he kept on with his philosophy that the director should be invisible and try to tailor himself to the subject. He was born in Alsace-Lorraine, spoke French and felt such a kinship to that part of the world. He used to say he was one of the few directors in Hollywood who can pronounce auteur theory properly and yet he was completely cast aside by them.”

In honor of Wyler’s centennial, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are celebrating his work with a five-week tribute that begins Thursday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with the screening of his first big critical hit, 1933’s “Counsellor-at-Law,” based on the Elmer Rice play about a Jewish lawyer (John Barrymore). A panel discussion will follow the movie with director Vincent Sherman, who appeared in the film; Carroll Baker who worked with Wyler on 1958’s “The Big Country”; Terence Stamp, who starred in Wyler’s controversial 1965 thriller, “The Collector”; and Wyler’s good friend, Oscar-winning screenwriter Fay Kanin

The LACMA arm of the festival follows on Friday with 1953’s romantic comedy “Roman Holiday,” starring Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-wining performance as a European princess who skips out of the palace while visiting Rome), and 1935’s charming “The Good Fairy,” starring Margaret Sullavan--then married to Wyler--as a naive cinema usherette.

One of Wyler’s big champions is his granddaughter, Amy Lehr, a children’s television producer who was 10 when he died in 1981. Lehr worked with the studios to get new prints struck of her grandfather’s films and set up major retrospectives of his work all over the country, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

His versatility, she says, works for him and against him. “That’s why I sort of have been pushing his name so much to my generation,” says Lehr. “He doesn’t have a signature. He’s not Hitchcock. People don’t necessarily know his name, but they do know his films.” Ian Birnie, the head of LACMA’s film department, points out that no one has really examined Wyler’s oeuvre for decades. “The last retrospective in L.A. was at LACMA in 1976,” he says. “We call the series ‘The Tradition of Excellence’ because his films are so excellent. There is excellent acting, wonderful design, beautiful scripts, brilliantly conceived projects.”

If there is a theme that runs through his films, adds Birnie, it is the fact that most of his leading characters were rebels or outsiders like the conniving Southern belle in 1938’s “Jezebel,” the moody Healthcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and the murderous housewife in 1940’s “The Letter.”

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“Even when they are punished or destroyed or resolutely outside society ... there is an enormous sense of sympathy for these people,” says Birnie. “They are quite rich and complex characters.”

Wyler had a knack with actors, with an unprecedented 38 performers winning Academy Awards for their performances.

“I think he knew what he wanted, but it wasn’t something he could specify,” says his daughter. “What he wanted was a commitment of complete honesty and reality, and that wasn’t something you could vocalize. But that is why his films are so good today.”

Baker enjoyed working with Wyler on the “The Big Country.” Wyler, she says, had a similar style to George Stevens, with whom she worked in 1956’s “Giant.”

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“They were great film painters,” she says. “The thing that both of them did, which I don’t think they could do today, is that they do takes many times. A lot of times I wouldn’t understand why we were doing a scene over and over again. I think actually both of them were always looking to see if there was going to be some sort of a wonderful accident or the light was going to change. Actually, I miss that filming technique.”

Still, the director’s nickname was “Forty Take Wyler” due to the numerous takes he required from his actors with each scene. A lot of actors complained about his style.

“He was articulate as a social being, but he was inarticulate, I guess, in telling them how he wanted it,” says Kanin. “There is a great story that Larry Olivier went crazy--take after take after take. Then he said, ‘Willy, how do want me to do it?’ Willy said, ‘Better.’ ”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Wyler’s ‘Tradition of Excellence’

Thursday: “Counsellor-at-Law”

Friday: “Roman Holiday” and “The Good Fairy”

Saturday: “The Little Foxes” and “Dead End”

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Tuesday: “The Westerner”

July 26: “Jezebel” and “Carrie”

July 27: “Wuthering Heights” and “These Three”

July 30: “Mrs. Miniver”

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Aug. 2: “Dodsworth” and “Detective Story”

Aug. 3: “The Letter” and “The Heiress”

Aug. 6: “The Big Country”

Aug. 9: “The Best Years of Our Lives”

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Aug. 10: “The Children’s Hour” and “The Collector”

Aug. 16: “Funny Girl”

Aug. 17: “Ben-Hur”

“Counsellor-at-Law” screens at 8 p.m. Thursday at Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; $5. Other screenings are at the Leo S. Bing Theater at the L.A. County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Screenings are at 7:30 p.m.--except for matinees Tuesday, July 30 and Aug. 6 at 1 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults; $6 for AFI and museum members, seniors over 61 and students with I.D. Tickets: (877) 522-6225.

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