William Wyler (July 1, 1902 – July 27, 1981) was a leading American motion picture director, producer, and screenwriter. He was regarded as second only to John Ford as a "master craftsman of cinema."
Notable works included Ben-Hur (1959), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Mrs. Miniver (1942), all of which won Wyler Academy Awards for Best Director, and also won Best Picture. He earned his first Oscar nomination for directing Dodsworth in 1936, starring Walter Huston and Mary Astor, "sparking a 20-year run of almost unbroken greatness."
Film historian Ian Freer calls Wyler a "bona fide perfectionist," whose penchant for retakes and an attempt to hone every last nuance, "became the stuff of legend." His ability to direct a string of classic literary adaptations into huge box-office and critical successes made him one of "Hollywood's most bankable moviemakers" during the 1930s and 1940s.
Other popular films include Funny Girl (1968), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Big Country (1958), Roman Holiday (1953), The Heiress (1949), The Letter (1940), The Westerner (1940), Wuthering Heights (1939), Jezebel (1938), Dodsworth (1936), A House Divided (1931), and Hell's Heroes (1930).
Wyler was born Wilhelm Weiller to a Jewish family, a Swiss father and a German mother, in Mulhouse in the French region of Alsace (then part of the German Empire). His mother was a cousin of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. His father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman which he later turned into a thriving haberdashery business.
During his childhood Wyler attended a number of 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, and the theatre, as well as the early cinema. Sometimes at home his family and their friends would stage amateur theatricals for personal enjoyment.
After realizing that William was not interested in the family business, and having suffered through a terrible year financially after World War I, his mother, Melanie, contacted her distant cousin about opportunities for him. Laemmle was in the habit of coming to Europe each year and finding promising young men who would work in America.
In 1921, Wyler found himself and a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later the independent agent) on the same ship to New York. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short lived as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25 weekly income as messengers to Universal Pictures in New York. After working in New York for several years Wyler decided he wanted to go to Hollywood and be a director.
Around 1923, he arrived in Los Angeles and began work on the Universal lot on the swing gang, cleaning the stages and moving the sets. His break came when he was hired as a 2nd assistant editor. His work ethic was uneven at best with Irving Thalberg nicknaming him "Worthless Willy". After some ups and downs (including getting fired) Wyler became 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 were famed at turning out. In 1928, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
He soon proved himself an able craftsman and in the early 1930s became one of Universal's greatest assets, directing such solid films as The Love Trap, Hell's Heroes, Tom Brown of Culver, and The Good Fairy. He became well-known for his merciless (some would say sadistic) insistence on multiple retakes, resulting in often award-winning and critically acclaimed performances from his actors. After leaving Universal he began a long collaboration with Samuel Goldwyn for whom he directed such classics as Dodsworth (1936), These Three (1936), Dead End (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939), The Westerner (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Laurence Olivier, whom Wyler directed to his first-ever Oscar nomination, for Wuthering Heights, credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen, despite clashing with Wyler on multiple occasions during the making of the film. Olivier would go on to hold the record for the most nominations in the Best Actor category. Bette Davis received three Oscar nominations for her screen work under Wyler, and won her second Oscar for her performance in Wyler's 1938 film Jezebel. Charlton Heston won his only nomination and Best Actor Oscar for his work in Wyler's 1959 Ben-Hur. Barbra Streisand co-won 1968's Best Actress Oscar for her screen debut as entertainer Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar in her debut performance in Roman Holiday.
In 1941 Wyler directed one of the key films that galvanized support for Britain and against the Nazis in an America slow to awaken to the threat in Europe, it was Mrs. Miniver (1942), a story of a middle class English family adjusting to the war in Europe. Mrs. Miniver won Wyler his first Academy Award for Best Director, as well as another five Oscars.
Wyler was such a perfectionist that he earned the nickname 90-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 in his performance in Ben-Hur, Wyler dismissed his concerns with a simple, ”Be better”.
World War II
Between 1942 and 1945, Wyler served as a major in the United States Army Air Forces and directed two documentaries The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) and Thunderbolt! (1947), with Lester Koenig and John Sturges, the story of 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 passed out from lack of oxygen. Wyler's associate, cinematographer Harold J. Tannenbaum was shot down and perished during the filming.
Wyler also 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), the story of three veterans arriving home and adjusting to civilian life, dramatized the problems of returning veterans for those who had remained on the homefront. Wyler's most personal film, taken from his experiences away from his family for three years and on the front, The Best Years of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Director (his second) and Academy Award for Best Picture.
During the immediate postwar period, Wyler directed a handful of critically acclaimed and influential films, The Heiress which earned Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar, Roman Holiday (1953), which introduced Audrey Hepburn to American audiences and resulted in her first Oscar nomination and win, Friendly Persuasion (1956) which was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival, and Ben-Hur (1959) which won 11 Oscars (equalled only twice, by Titanic in 1997 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003). Ben-Hur won Wyler his third Academy Award for Best Director.
Wyler's films garnered more awards for participating artists and actors than any other director in the history of Hollywood. He received twelve Oscar nominations for Best Director in total, while dozens of his collaborators and actors won Oscars or were nominated. In 1965, Wyler won the Irving Thalberg 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, thirteen of Wyler's films earned Best Picture nominations.
Wyler's style is (among auteurist critics) notoriously difficult to perceive. He did not build a stable of players like most directors, although frequent collaborators included composer Alfred Newman, and editors Daniel Madell and Robert Swink. He directed varied types of films without any trademark shots or themes, but in his choice of lighting, blocking and camera distance, and in the serious liberal tone of his work, a continuity of worldview is detectable.
Other Wyler pictures that appeared at this time include The Children's Hour, The Collector, Funny Girl (which earned Barbra Streisand the Best Actress Oscar), and his final film The Liberation of L.B. Jones. He planned other films, but bad health forced him to drop out of the movies and he spent more time with his family.
On July 24, 1981, Wyler gave an interview with his daughter, producer Catherine Wyler for Directed by William Wyler, a PBS documentary about his life and career. A mere three days later, Wyler died from a heart attack. Wyler's last words on film concern a vision of directing his "next picture...Going Home." Wyler is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Wyler was briefly married to Margaret Sullavan (November 25, 1934 - March 13, 1936) and married Margaret Tallichet on October 23, 1938. The couple remained together until his death; they had five children, Catherine, Judith, William Jr., Melanie and David.
Wyler is the most nominated director in Academy Awards history with 12 nominations. In addition to that, Wyler has the distinction of having 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.
William Wyler received the 4th AFI LIfe Achievement Award in 1976.
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
1957 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
1.^ Freer, Ian. Movie Makers: 50 Iconic Directors, Quercus Publ., London (2009)
2.^ Wakeman, John. World Film Directors: Vol. I, 1890-1945, H.W. Wilson Co., (1987)
3.^ Madsen 1973, p. 3.
5.^ Kozloff, Sarah. "Wyler's wars." Film History 20.4 (2008): 456 pp.
Anderegg, Michael A. William Wyler. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0-8057-9268-6.
Herman, Jan. A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995. ISBN 0-399-14012-3.
Madsen, Axel. William Wyler: the Authorized Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. ISBN 0-491-01302-7.
Marcus, Daniel. “William Wyler’s World War II Films and the Bombing of Civilian Populations,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 29 (March 2009), 79–90.