Oscar Directors: Wyler, William

What are the most crucial attributes of the Oscar-winning directors?

This question can be answered by examining the filmmakers who have historically dominated the Oscar competition by way of nominations and awards.

During the studio system, John Ford, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann, David Lean, George Stevens, and Billy Wilder occupied special positions in the Academy annals in two ways: many of their films were nominated for the Best Picture, and many performers in their films have received Oscar nominations and/or awards.

Mention has been made that John Ford’s directorial Oscars were not for his specialty, the Western, but for what the Academy deemed as “more important” social problem pictures, such as The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, or How Green was My Valley (his fourth Oscar was for The Quiet Man).

Of the aforementioned filmmakers, William Wyler is the most diverse, at least in terms of genres, having directed serious dramas, Westerns, romantic comedies, and even musicals. Three of Wyler’s films–more than any other director–have won the Best Picture: Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Ben-Hur.

Wyler often brought out the best out of his performers.  There are thirteen Oscar-winning roles in his films: Walter Brennan (Come and Get It, codirected with Howard Hawks, and The Westerner), Bette Davis and Faye Bainter (Jezebel), Greer Garson and Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver), Fredric March and Harold Russell (The Best Years of Our Lives), Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), Burl Ives (The Big Country), Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith (BenHur), and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl).

Wyler was the Academy’s most respected and most honored director: over half of his thirty-five sound movies brought their players Oscar nominations.

Wyler’s films may have contained the largest number of Oscar-winning or nominated performances due to his use, with cinematographer Gregg Toland, of long takes and deep focus (in which characters appear in the same frame for the duration of the entire scene), thus enabling their actors to achieve continuity of performance and coherence.

These strategies required discipline and concentration on the part of screen players, most of whom were used to acting in bits and pieces, the predominant norm of shooting in Hollywood.

A meticulous craftsman, Wyler was nicknamed “90-take Wyler” for the numerous takes he demanded.  Accused of being a tyrant, Wyler often clashed with his actors, yet most of them have done their best work in his movies.

However, the Wyler films that won Best Picture and Best Director did not necessarily represent his most distinguished or characteristic work, among which are Dodsworth, The Letter, and Little Foxes.

One of the most propagandistic films ever made during WWII, Mrs. Miniver won the 1942 Best Picture for ideological and political rather than artistic reasons.

The historical epic Ben-Hur, which swept the 1959 Oscars, also did not bear Wyler’s signature as a filmmaker, who was at his best in adapting literary works to the screen.

Wyler’s reputation suffered in the 1960s and 1970s, along with that of Zinnemann, when auteurist critics could not discern consistent or idiosyncratic elements in his work–at least compared with those of the more obvious auteurs such as Fritz Lang, John Ford, and Howard Hawks.

Yet as the New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, once observed, Wyler was best at “submerging his own personality to obtain the most effective realization of the work of others,” and it is this extraordinary consistency of purpose and achievement” that is his distinctive trademark.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (NY: Continuum International, paperback, 2003)