William Wyler was one of the greatest film directors Hollywood — or any other film industry — has ever produced. Today, Wyler lacks the following of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra, or even Howard Hawks most likely because, unlike Hitchcock, Ford, or Capra (and to a lesser extent Hawks), Wyler never focused on a particular genre, while his films were hardly as male-centered as those of the aforementioned four directors. Dumb but true: Films about women and their issues tend to be perceived as inferior to those about men — especially tough men — and their issues.
The German-born Wyler (1902, in Alsace, now part of France) immigrated to the United States in his late teens. Following a stint at Universal’s New York office, he moved to Hollywood and by the mid-’20s was directing Western shorts. His ascent was quick; by 1929 Wyler was directing Universal’s top female star, Laura La Plante in the fluffy but enjoyable comedy The Love Trap.
From then on, Wyler became one of Hollywood’s most prestigious filmmakers, tackling all sorts of topics — from Quaker family values to closeted homosexuality — while venturing into just about every type of movie genre: Westerns (Hell’s Heroes, The Big Country), socially conscious dramas (Dead End, The Best Years of Our Lives, Friendly Persuasion, The Liberation of L.B. Jones), melodramas (A House Divided, Dodsworth, Mrs. Miniver), thrillers (Detective Story, The Desperate Hour), comedies (The Gay Deception, How to Steal a Million), romantic fare (The Good Fairy, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights), kinky fare (The Collector), and prestigious stage adaptations (The Letter, The Heiress, The Children’s Hour). All that, in addition to war documentaries (The Memphis Belle, The Fighting Lady), a musical (Funny Girl), and a mammoth epic (Ben-Hur).
From the mid-1920s to his last film in 1970, Wyler also directed just about everyone in Hollywood, from the aforementioned Laura La Plante to Barbra Streisand, from John Barrymore to Omar Sharif, plus the likes of Gary Cooper, Merle Oberon, Walter Pidgeon, Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Eleanor Parker, Kirk Douglas, Montgomery Clift, Frances Farmer, Lupe Velez, Herbert Marshall, Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones, Virginia Mayo, Peter O’Toole, Dana Andrews, Bebe Daniels, Francis Lederer, Ruth Chatterton, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Lukas, Constance Cummings, Dorothy McGuire, Doris Kenyon, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, James Garner, Frances Dee, Gregory Peck, and dozens of others.
Many of those performers reached career highs — at least from an acting standpoint — in their films for Wyler. I could mention Olivia de Havilland at her very best in The Heiress. Bette Davis, delivering two of her most brilliant characterizations in both The Letter and The Little Foxes. Miriam Hopkins superb in both These Three (as The Children’s Hour’s lesbian turned heterosexual for the movie version) and its remake, The Children’s Hour (as the dotty aunt of the lesbian character, now played by Shirley MacLaine). Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, beautifully playing off of each other in The Collector. (Though definitely not Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. But then again, even the most effective actors’ director can only do so much.)
Apart from a handful of lighthearted characters such as those found in The Westerner and Roman Holiday, dramatic roles (even if at times tinged with comedy) dominate the list of Oscar-nominated performances in films directed by Wyler. There were 36 nominations in all — among them 14 wins — running the gamut from Walter Huston’s conflicted husband in Dodsworth to Hugh Griffith’s hammy sheik in Ben-Hur; from Claire Trevor’s embittered prostitute in Dead End to Greer Garson’s nobly suffering Englishwoman in Mrs. Miniver.
Bette Davis appears on the list three times, for Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941). Walter Brennan, Fay Bainter, and Teresa Wright appear twice each in the supporting categories: Brennan for Come and Get It (1936), on which Wyler replaced Howard Hawks, and The Westerner (1940); Bainter for Jezebel and The Children’s Hour (1961); and Wright for The Little Foxes and Mrs. Miniver (1942).
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