July 1, 1902
Mülhausen, Alsace, German Empire (present-day Mulhouse, Haut-Rhin, France)
|Died||July 27, 1981
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Occupation||Film director, producer|
|Spouse(s)||Margaret Sullavan (1934–1936; divorced)
Margaret Tallichet (1938–1981; his death; 5 children)
William Wyler (July 1, 1902 – July 27, 1981) was an American film director, producer and screenwriter. 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, as well as Best Picture in their respective years. Wyler won his first Oscar nomination for directing Dodsworth in 1936, starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton 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 Wyler films include Funny Girl (1968), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Children's Hour (1961), The Big Country (1958), Roman Holiday (1953), The Heiress (1949), The Letter (1940), The Westerner (1940), Wuthering Heights (1939), Jezebel (1938), Dodsworth (1936), and Hell's Heroes (1930).
Wyler was born Willy Wyler to a Jewish family in Mulhouse, Alsace (part of the then-German Empire). His Swiss father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman which he later turned into a thriving haberdashery business in Mulhouse. His mother, Melanie (died February 13, 1955, Los Angeles, aged 77), was German, and a cousin of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. During Wyler's childhood, he 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.
Wyler was supposed to take over the family business. 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 the Pigalle district. After realizing that Willy was not interested in the haberdashery business, his mother 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, traveling as a Swiss citizen (his father's status automatically conferred Swiss citizenship to his sons), Wyler met Laemmle who hired him to work at Universal 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 the famous independent agent), aboard the same ship. 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. After working in New York for several years, and even serving in the New York National Guard for a year, Wyler decided he wanted to go to Hollywood and be a director.
Around 1923, Wyler arrived in Los Angeles and began work on the Universal Studios lot in 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 with Irving Thalberg nicknaming him "Worthless Willy". After some ups and downs (including getting fired), he 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 at turning out. In 1928, he became a naturalized United States citizen.
He directed his first non-Western, the lost Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, in 1928. These were followed by his first part-talkie films, The Shakedown and The Love Trap. He proved himself an able craftsman, and in the early 1930s began directing such films as Hell's Heroes, Tom Brown of Culver, and The Good Fairy. He became well known for his 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. Olivier would go on to hold the record for the most nominations in the Best Actor category. In 1950 Wyler and Olivier made a second film together, "Carrie". Although it was one of Wyler's best films, containing a superb performance by Olivier, it was not a commercial success but its greatness can be appreciated on DVD. 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 won 1968's Best Actress Oscar (as did Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter, in the only tie in Oscar history for this category) as entertainer Fanny Brice in Streisand's debut film, Funny Girl. Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar in her debut performance in Roman Holiday. 13 actors won Oscars under Wyler's direction. 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, 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.
A perfectionist, Wyler 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 "Be better".
World War II
Between 1942 and 1945, Wyler, who became a United States citizen in 1928, served as a major in the United States Army Air Forces and directed three documentaries: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), the story of a Boeing B-17 and its U.S. Army Air Force crew, Thunderbolt! (1947), with Lester Koenig and John Sturges, the story of a P-47 fighter-bomber squadron in the Mediterranean, and The Fighting Lady," a portrait of life on a World War II aircraft carrier that won Best Documentary Oscar in 1945. 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.[page needed] The exposure to the sound of the aircraft's engines resulted in Wyler losing his hearing in one ear.
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). This story of the homecoming of three veterans from World War II 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 Academy Award for Best Director (Wyler's second) and Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as seven other Academy Awards.
During the immediate postwar period, Wyler directed a handful of critically acclaimed and influential films. In 1949, he 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. Roman Holiday (1953) introduced Audrey Hepburn to American audiences and led to Oscars for Best Actress (Hepburn), Costume Design (Edith Head), and Best Writing (Dalton Trumbo). Friendly Persuasion (1956) was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1959, Wyler directed Ben-Hur, which won 11 Oscars (a feat equalled only by Titanic in 1997 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003). Wyler won his third Academy Award for Best Director for Ben-Hur.
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 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, 13 of Wyler's films earned Best Picture nominations. Other late Wyler films include The Children's Hour, The Collector, Funny Girl, and his final film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones.
On July 24, 1981, Wyler gave an interview with his daughter, Catherine, for Directed by William Wyler, a PBS documentary about his life and career. Three days later, he died from a heart attack. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California.
Wyler was briefly married to Margaret Sullavan (November 25, 1934 – March 13, 1936) and married 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.
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.
Wyler also 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.
William Wyler received the fourth AFI LIfe Achievement Award in 1976.
- Herman 1995, p. 37.
- Freer 2009, p. 24.
- Freer 2009, p. 57.
- According to son, David Wyler
- Wakeman 1987, p. 1220.
- Madsen 1973, p. 3.
- Wakeman 1987, p. 1222.
- Wakeman 1987, p. 1223.
- Madsen 1973, p. 73.
- Wyler profile at palzoo.net Retrieved November 12, 2011.
- Kozloff, Sarah. "Wyler's wars.", Film History, April 20, 2008.
- Anderegg, Michael A. William Wyler. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0-8057-9268-6.
- Freer, Ian. Movie Makers: 50 Iconic Directors. London: Quercus Publishers, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84724-512-0
- 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, pp. 79–90.
- Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors: Vol. I, 1890–1945. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1987. ISBN 978-0-8242-0757-1.
- William Wyler at the Internet Movie Database
- William Wyler bibliography via UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
- Senses of Cinema: Great Directors Critical Database
- "The Little Foxes" and Wyler's screen collaborations with playwright Lillian Hellman
- Margaret Tallichet and William Wyler remembered at Alabama festival
- The Fighting Lady