Oscar History via Oscar Directors: Wyler, William, Winner No. 9–Background, Career, Awards, Filmography

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William Wyler Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No, but Laemmle was relative who helped

Social Class: Middle class; father salesman

Nationality: Swiss-born

Religion: Jewish

Education:

Training:

First Film:

First Oscar Nomination: Dodsworth, 1936, age 34

Oscar Awards: 3 wins; Mrs. Miniver, 1942; age 40; Best years, 1946; age 44; Ben-Hur, 1959; age 57

Other Nominations: 12 Directing noms; only director with 3 Best Picture winner (Billy Wilder, 2; Kazan 2; Minnelli 2)

Genre (specialties): Variety

Inspiration (Role Model)

Collaborators: Bette Davis as actress; cinematographer Gregg Toland in six films.

Last Film: The Liberation of L.B. Jones, 1970; aged 68

Contract: Universal; Goldwyn

Career Output: 19

Career Span: over 40 years

Marriage: 2 (both actresses)

Politics:

Retirement: age 68 (11 years before his death)

Death: 79

 

William Wyler (born Willi Wyler July 1, 1902 –July 27, 1981) was a Swiss-German film director, producer and screenwriter.

Notable works include Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959), all of which won him the Best Director and Best Picture, making him the only director of three Best Picture winners.

Wyler received his first Oscar nomination for directing Dodsworth in 1936, age 34, starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor, sparking a 20-year run of almost unbroken greatness.

Historian Ian Freer calls Wyler a “bona fide perfectionist,” whose penchant for retakes and attempt to hone every last nuance, “became the stuff of legend.” His ability to direct classic literary adaptations into huge box-office and critical successes made him one of “Hollywood’s most bankable moviemakers” during the 1930s and 1940s and into the 1960s. Through his talent for staging, editing, and camera movement, he turned dynamic theatrical spaces into cinematic ones.

He helped propel many actors to stardom, directing Audrey Hepburn in her Hollywood debut film, Roman Holiday (1953), and Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl (1968). Both of these performances won the Academy Awards.

He directed Olivia de Havilland to her second Oscar in The Heiress (1949) and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), his first Oscar nomination. Olivier credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis, who received 3 Oscar nominations under his direction and won her second Oscar in Jezebel (1938), said Wyler made her a “far, far better actress” than she had ever been.

Other popular Wyler films include: Hell’s Heroes (1929), Dodsworth (1936), The Westerner (1940), The Letter (1940), Friendly Persuasion (1956), The Big Country (1958), The Children’s Hour (1961) and How to Steal a Million (1966).

Wyler was born to a Jewish family in Mulhouse, Alsace (then part of the German Empire). His Swiss-born father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman but later became a thriving haberdasher in Mulhouse. His mother, Melanie (née Auerbach; died February 13, 1955, Los Angeles, aged 77), was German-born, and a cousin of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures.

During Wyler’s childhood, he attended several schools and developed a reputation as “something of a hellraiser,” being expelled more than once for misbehavior. His mother often took him and his older brother Robert to concerts, opera, theatre, and cinema. At home his family and their friends would stage amateur theatricals for personal enjoyment.

Wyler was supposed to take over the family haberdashery business in Mulhouse, France. After World War I, he spent a dismal year working in Paris at 100.000 Chemises selling shirts and ties. He was so poor he often spent his time wandering around the Pigalle district. After realizing that Willy was not interested in the haberdashery business, his mother Melanie contacted her distant cousin, Carl Laemmle who owned Universal, about opportunities for him.

Laemmle would come to Europe each year, searching for promising men who would work in America. In 1921, Wyler, while traveling as a Swiss citizen (his father’s status), met Laemmle who hired him to work at Universal Studios in New York. As Wyler said: “America seemed as far away as the moon.” Booked onto a ship to New York with Laemmle upon his return voyage, he met a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later  famous independent agent), aboard the ship. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short-lived, however, as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25 weekly income as messengers to Universal.

After working in New York for several years, and serving in the New York Army National Guard for a year, Wyler moved to Hollywood to become a director.

Around 1923, Wyler arrived in Los Angeles and began work on the Universal lot in the swing gang, cleaning the stages and moving the sets. His break came when he was hired as a second assistant editor. But his work ethic was uneven, and he would often sneak off and play billiards in a pool hall across the street, or organize card games during working hours.

After some ups and downs (including getting fired), Wyler focused on becoming a director. He started as a third assistant director and by 1925 he became the youngest director on the Universal lot directing the westerns that Universal was famed for turning out. In several of the one-reelers, he would join the posse in the inevitable chase of the ‘bad man’.

He directed his first non-Western, the lost Anybody Here Seen Kelly? in 1928. This was followed by his first part-talkie films, The Shakedown and The Love Trap. He proved himself an able craftsman.

In 1928 he became a naturalized US citizen. His first all-talking film, and Universal’s first sound production on location, was Hell’s Heroes, filmed in the Mojave Desert in 1929.

In the early 1930s Wyler directed a variety of films at Universal, from high-profile dramas such as The Storm, A House Divided, and Counsellor at Law, to comedies like Her First Mate and The Good Fairy. He became well known for insistence on multiple retakes, resulting in often award-winning and critically acclaimed performances from his actors.

Samuel Goldwyn

After leaving Universal he began long collaboration with Samuel Goldwyn for whom he directed such classics as Dodsworth (1936), These Three (1936), Dead End (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939),[9] The Westerner (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Wyler began his famous collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland, who together created the “deep focus” style of filmmaking wherein multiple layers of action or characters could be seen in one scene, most famous being the bar scene in The Best Years of Our Lives. Toland would use the deep focus he mastered with Wyler when he shot Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

It was all Wyler. I had known all the horrors of no direction and bad direction. I now knew what a great director was and what he could mean to an actress. I will always be grateful to him for his toughness and his genius–Bette Davis, discussing Jezebel

Bette Davis received 3 Oscar nominations for her screen work under Wyler, and won her second Oscar for her performance in Wyler’s 1938 film Jezebel. She told Merv Griffin in 1972 that Wyler trained her with that film to be a “far, far better actress” than she had been. She recalled a scene that was only a paragraph in the script, but “without a word of dialog, Willy created a scene of power and tension. This was moviemaking on the highest plane,” she said. “A scene of such suspense that I never have not marveled at the direction of it.” During her acceptance speech when she received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1977, she thanked Wyler.

Laurence Olivier, whom Wyler directed in Wuthering Heights (1939) for his first Oscar nomination, credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen, despite clashing. Olivier would go on to hold the record for the most nominations in the Best Actor category at nine, tied with Spencer Tracy.

Five years later, in 1944, while visiting London, Wyler met with Olivier and his actress wife Vivien Leigh. She invited him to see her performance in The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Olivier asked him to direct him in his planned film, Henry V. But Wyler said he was “not a Shakespearian” and turned down the offer.

If any film actor is having trouble with his career, can’t master the medium and wonders whether it’s worth it, let him pray to meet a man like William Wyler–Olivier

In 1950, Wyler and Olivier made a second film together, Carrie, which was not a success; because of its old-fashioned story, the film was under-appreciated.

Huston’s Mentor

Director and screenwriter John Huston had been a close friend of Wyler during his career. When he was 28 and penniless, sleeping in parks in London, Huston returned to Hollywood to see find work. Wyler, only 4 years his senior, had met Huston when he was directing his father, Walter Huston, in A House Divided in 1931, and they got along well. Wyler read dialogue suggestions that Huston had given to his father Walter and hired John to work on the dialogue. He later inspired Huston to become a director and became his “early mentor.”

When U.S. entered WWII in 1941, Wyler, Huston, Anatole Litvak and Frank Capra enlisted at the same time. Later in his career, Huston recalled his friendship with Wyler: Willy was certainly my best friend in the industry…. We seemed instantly to have many things in common…. Willy liked the things that I liked. We’d go down to Mexico. We’d go up in the mountains. And we’d gamble. He was a wonderful companion….He was equally capable of playing Beethoven on his violin, speeding around town on his motorcycle, or schussing down steep virgin snow trails.

In 1941, Wyler directed Mrs. Miniver, based on the 1940 novel; it was the story of a middle-class English family adjusting to the war in Europe and the bombing blitz in London. It starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon originally had doubts about taking on the role, until fellow actor Paul Lukas told him, “You will find working with Wyler to be the most delightful experience you ever had, and that’s the way it turned out.” Pidgeon recalls: “One thing that would have been a terrific regret in my life is if I had succeeded in getting out of doing Mrs. Miniver” He received his first Oscar nomination for his role, while his co-star, Greer Garson, won her first and only Academy Award for her performance.

The idea for the film was controversial, since it was intended to make America less isolationist. By portraying the real-life suffering of British citizens in a fictional story, Americans might be more prone to help Britain during their war effort. The film succeeded in its propaganda, showing England during its darkest days of the war. Years later, after having been in the war himself, Wyler said that the film “only scratched the surface of war… It was incomplete.”

However, before America entered the war in December 1941, all films that could be considered anti-Nazi were banned by the Hays Office.

U.S. ambassador to the UK, Joseph Kennedy, told the studios to stop making pro-British and anti-German films. Kennedy felt that British defeat was imminent. But MGM producer Eddie Mannix disagreed, saying that “someone should salute England. And even if we lose $100,000, that’ll be okay.”

Mrs. Miniver went on to win six Academy Awards, becoming the top box office hit of 1942. It was Wyler’s first Academy Award for Best Director.

Dear Mad Willy. I saw Mrs. Miniver last night. It is absolutely wonderful. You repeatedly amaze me with the demonstrations of your talent and I ask you to believe that it is with genuine pleasure that I salute this latest and greatest example of your work–producer David Selznick

President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill both loved the film,  and Roosevelt wanted prints rushed to theaters nationwide. The Voice of America radio network broadcast the minister’s speech from the film, magazines reprinted it, and it was copied onto leaflets and dropped over German-occupied countries. Churchill sent MGM head Louis B. Mayer a telegram claiming that “Mrs. Miniver is propaganda worth 100 battleships.” Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review that Mrs. Miniver was the finest film yet made about the war, “and a most exalting tribute to the British.”

Between 1942 and 1945 Wyler volunteered to serve as a major in the US Army Air Forces and directed a pair of documentaries: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), about a Boeing B-17 and its U.S. Army Air Force crew; and Thunderbolt! (1947), highlighting a P-47 fighter-bomber squadron in the Mediterranean. Wyler filmed The Memphis Belle at great personal risk, flying over enemy territory on actual bombing missions in 1943; on one flight, Wyler lost consciousness from lack of oxygen. Wyler’s associate, cinematographer Harold J. Tannenbaum, a First Lieutenant, was shot down and perished during the filming. Director Spielberg describes Wyler’s filming of Memphis Belle in the 2017 Netflix series, Five Came Back.

Working on Thunderbolt! Wyler was exposed to such loud noise that he passed out. When he awoke, he found he was deaf in one ear. Partial hearing with the aid of a hearing aid eventually came back years later. Wyler returned from the War a disabled veteran.

Returning from the War and unsure whether he could work again, Wyler turned to a subject he knew well, and directed a film which captured the mood of the nation as it turned to peace after the war, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). This story of the homecoming of three veterans from WWII dramatized the problems of returning veterans in their adjustment back to civilian life. Arguably his most personal film, Best Years drew on Wyler’s own experience returning home to his family after three years on the front. The Best Years of Our Lives won the Best Director (Wyler’s second) and Best Picture Oscars, as well as seven other Academy Awards.

In 1949 Wyler directed The Heiress, which earned Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar and garnered additional Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Music. The film is considered to be a highlight in de Havilland’s career.

De Havilland had seen the play in New York and felt she could play the lead perfectly. She then called Wyler to convince him to have Paramount buy the rights. He flew to New York to see the play, and moved by the story, convinced the studio to buy it. Along with de Havilland, he cast Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson to co-star.

In 1951, Wyler produced and directed Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker in Detective Story, portraying a day in the lives of the various people in a detective squad. Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman made their screen debuts in the film, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Grant.

Carrie was released in 1952 starring Jennifer Jones in the title role and Laurence Olivier as Hurstwood. Eddie Albert played Charles Drouet. Carrie received two Oscar nominations: Costume Design (Edith Head), and Best Art Direction (Hal Pereira, Roland Anderson, Emile Kuri). Wyler was reluctant to cast Jennifer Jones, and the filming was subsequently plagued by troubles. Jones had not revealed that she was pregnant; Wyler was mourning the death of his year-old son; Olivier had a painful leg ailment, and he developed dislike for Jones. Hollywood was reeling under the effects of McCarthyism, and the studio was afraid to distribute a film that could be attacked as immoral. Thus, the ending was changed and the film was cut to make it more positive in tone.

During the postwar period, Wyler directed some critically acclaimed and influential films. Roman Holiday (1953) introduced Audrey Hepburn to American audiences in her first starring role, winning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Wyler said of Hepburn years later, “In that league there’s only ever been Garbo, and the other Hepburn, and maybe Bergman. It’s a rare quality, but boy do you know when you’ve found it.” The film was an instant hit, also winning for Best Costume Design (Edith Head), and Best Writing (Dalton Trumbo).

Hepburn would eventually do 3 movies with Wyler, who became one of the most important directors in her career.

Friendly Persuasion (1956) was awarded the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival. And in 1959, Wyler directed Ben-Hur, which won 11 Oscars, a feat unequaled until Titanic in 1997. He had also assisted in the production of the 1925 version.

Wyler and its star, Charlton Heston, both knew what the film meant for MGM, which had massive investments, with the film’s budget having gone from $7 million to $15 million, and the fact that MGM was already in dire financial straits. They were aware that if it failed at the box office, MGM might go bankrupt.

The film, like many epics, was difficult to make. When Heston was asked which scene he enjoyed doing most, he said “I didn’t enjoy any of it. It was hard work.” Part of the reason for that was the financial stress placed on making the film a success. With a cast of fifteen thousand extras, a leading star, and being shot on 70mm film with stereophonic tracks, it was the most expensive film ever made at that time.

The nine-minute chariot race  took six months to film.

Ben-Hur became a great box office success. Wyler won his third Best Director and Charlton Heston his first and only Oscar as its star. Heston at first had doubts about taking the role. But his agent advised him otherwise: “Don’t you know that actors take parts with Wyler without even reading the damn script? I’m telling you, you have to do this picture!”

Kirk Douglas had lobbied Wyler, who directed him in Detective Story in 1951, for the title role, but only after Wyler had already decided on Heston. He offered him instead the role of Messala, which Douglas rejected. Douglas then went on to make and star in his own historical epic, Spartacus (1960).

Ben-Hur cost $15 million to produce but earned $47 million by the end of 1961 and $90 million worldwide. Audiences mobbed movie theaters in the months after it opened. Critic Pauline Kael praised Wyler: “I admire the artist who can make something good for the art house audience; but I also applaud the commercial heroism of a director who can steer huge production and keep his sanity and perspective and decent human feelings beautifully intact.”

In 1968 he directed Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl, costarring Omar Sharif, which became a huge financial success. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, and like Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role, Streisand won as Best Actress, becoming the 13th actor to win an Oscar under his direction.

Streisand had already starred in the Broadway musical of Funny Girl, with seven hundred performances. And although she knew the part well, Wyler still had to mold her stage role for the screen. She naturally wanted to be involved in the film’s production, often asking Wyler questions, but they got along well. “Things were ironed out when she discovered some of us knew what we were doing,” kidded Wyler.

What originally attracted him to direct Streisand was similar to what attracted him about Audrey Hepburn, who had also been new to film audiences. He met with Streisand during her musical run and became excited at the prospect of guiding another new star into an award-winning performance. He sensed and admired that Streisand had the same kind of dedication to being an actress as did Bette Davis, early in her career. “It just needed to be controlled and toned down for the movie camera.” Wyler said afterwards: I’m terribly fond of her. She was very professional, very good, a hard worker, too hard at times. She would work day and night if you would let her. She is absolutely tireless.

The last film Wyler directed was The Liberation of L.B. Jones, released in 1970.

Wyler had worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland for six of his films, mostly in the 1930s. Toland used deep focus technique for most of them, whereby he could keep all objects on the screen, whether foreground or background, in sharp focus at the same time. The technique gives the illusion of depth, and therefore makes the scene more true to life.

A perfectionist, Wyler earned the nickname “40-take Wyler”. On the set of Jezebel, Wyler forced Henry Fonda through 40 takes of one particular scene, his only guidance being “Again!” after each take. When Fonda asked for more direction, Wyler responded, “It stinks.” Similarly, when Charlton Heston quizzed the director about the supposed shortcomings of his performance in Ben-Hur, Wyler simply told Heston “Be better!” However, Heston notes that by the time a scene is done, regardless of how hard it was to do, it always came off well:

The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it. Your faith in his taste and what it will do for your performance is what makes casting a Wyler picture a cinch…doing a film for Wyler is like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You darn near drown, but you come out smelling like a rose.[

Legacy

Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938)
Fourteen actors won Oscars under Wyler’s direction, including Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938) and her nomination for The Letter (1940). Davis summed up their work together: “It was he who helped me to realize my full potential as an actress. I met my match in this exceptionally creative and talented director.”

Other Oscar winners were Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949), Audrey Hepburn in her debut film, Roman Holiday (1953), Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959), and Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl (1968).

Wyler’s films garnered more awards for participating artists and actors than any other director in the history of Hollywood. He received 12 Oscar nominations for Best Director, while dozens of his collaborators and actors won Oscars or were nominated.

In 1965, Wyler won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for career achievement. Eleven years later, he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. In addition to his Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins, 13 of Wyler’s films earned Best Picture nominations. Other late Wyler films include The Children’s Hour (1961), which was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Later films included The Collector (1963), Funny Girl (1968), and his final film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970).

Wyler was briefly married to actress Margaret Sullavan (from November 25, 1934 – March 13, 1936) and married actress Margaret “Talli” Tallichet on October 23, 1938. The couple remained together until his death; they had five children: Catherine, Judith, William Jr., Melanie and David. His wife played important part in his career, often being his “gatekeeper” and his reader of scripts presented to him.

On July 24, 1981, Wyler gave an interview with daughter Catherine, for Directed by William Wyler, a PBS documentary about his life and career. Three days later, he died from a heart attack.

Honors and awards
Wyler is the most nominated director in Academy Awards history with twelve nominations. He won the Academy Award for Best Direction on three occasions, for his direction of Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mrs. Miniver. He is tied with Frank Capra and behind John Ford, who won four Oscars in this category.

He is the only director in Academy history to direct three Best Picture-winning films (the three for which he won Best Director), and directed more Best Picture nominees than anyone else (thirteen).

He has the distinction of having directed more actors to Oscar-nominated performances than any other director in history: thirty-six. Out of these nominees, fourteen went on to win Oscars, also a record. He received the fourth AFI Life Achievement Award in 1976. Among those who thanked him for directing her in her debut film, was Barbra Streisand.

For his contributions to the motion picture industry, on February 8, 1960, Wyler has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1731 Vine Street.

Oscar: Awards and Nominations

1936 Dodsworth Best Director Nominated
1939 Wuthering Heights Best Director Nominated
1940 The Letter Best Director Nominated
1941 The Little Foxes Best Director Nominated
1942 Mrs. Miniver Best Director Won
1946 The Best Years of Our Lives Best Director Won
1949 The Heiress Best Motion Picture Nominated

Best Director Nominated
1952 Detective Story Best Director Nominated
1953 Roman Holiday Best Motion Picture Nominated
Best Director Nominated
1956 Friendly Persuasion Best Motion Picture Nominated
Best Director Nominated
1959 Ben-Hur Best Director Won
1965 The Collector Best Director Nominated
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award Won

Directors Guild of America
1952 Detective Story Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated
1954 Roman Holiday Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated
1957 Friendly Persuasion Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated
1959 The Big Country Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated
1960 Ben-Hur Outstanding Directorial Achievement Won
1962 The Children’s Hour Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated
1966 Lifetime Achievement Award
1969 Funny Girl Outstanding Directorial Achievement Nominated