From 1996, “A TALENT FOR TROUBLE, THE LIFE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST ACCLAIMED DIRECTOR WILLIAM WYLER” by Jan Herman is a well researched biography of the director whose films won 38 Oscars plus over 100 nominations.
William Wyler (1902- 1981 ) had a reputation as too slow, too careful and demanding, with a tendency to run over schedules and budgets.
But this is the man who gave us JEZEBEL, THE LETTER , THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, MRS MINIVER, THE HEIRESS and ROMAN HOLIDAY.
Born Willi Wyler in Alsace-Lorraine,an area between France and Germany which was disputed by the two countries until restored to France after the First World War.
Willi spoke German at home.
He studied in Switzerland and while in Zurich, he met Universal’s Carl Laemmle who was his mother’s cousin. Laemmle was known for giving a helping hand to his relatives and the 18 year old Willi was soon in New York at the Universal studio – working as a shipping clerk.
By 1922, he had transferred to Hollywood and decided that directing was what he wanted to do.
By 1925, he was assistant director on two-reeler westerns filmed at Lone Pine.
The rest as they say is history. Highlights from the book:
………As early as 1933, Wyler had seen “Jezebel” on Broadway and suggested it as a vehicle for Margaret Sullavan, but there was no interest at Universal. He would later marry Margaret Sullavan in 1936 though the marriage didn’t last two years. ( Margaret had married Henry Fonda when she was 20 and divorced Fonda when she was 22.)
………..Producer Hal Wallis wanted Wyler to direct “Jezebel”. (Wyler had been making films mainly for Universal and Paramount under non-exclusive contracts).
Bette Davis said: “On the first day of Jezebel,he made me do 48 takes.I never in my life had done more than two takes.’
For one scene, after a dozen takes, I said, ‘What do you want me to do differently?’
Wyler’s reply was, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Bette won her second Oscar and had a romance with Wyler.
……….Wyler married actress Margaret Tallichet in 1939 and they had 5 children and remained married till his death in 1981.
………David Selznick asked him to direct “Intermezzo”,but they fell out. Wyler said: “I worked about 6 weeks on the picture – story conferences, tests.”
……….On MRS. MINIVER, at the start of shooting, Greer Garson sent Wyler a pair of black velvet gloves. The card read, “For the iron hand of William Wyler.” ( Wyler wore them on the first day of shooting! )
……..Samuel Goldwyn wanted Olivia De Haviiland as ‘Millie’ in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but Wyler wanted Myrna Loy who did play the role – beautifully.
Wyler had seen a documentary , “Diary of a Sergeant” about Harold Russell who had lost both hands in a training accident.
Goldwyn wanted Russell to have acting lessons, but Wyler said, “I didn’t hire an actor,I hired a guy to play a role.”
The film won Oscars for Wyler, Fredric March and Harold Russell.(Russell actually got two Oscars for the same role, something that never happened again. The Academy had assumed that the non-professional actor would not win in the Supporting category and gave him an honorary Oscar for ‘bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans.’
The three men gaze down on their home town from the plane carrying them home after the war.
Harold Russell was an inspired piece of casting.
………..Olivia De Havilland urged Wyler to see the stage play, “The Heiress” on Broadway.Wyler subsequently persuaded Paramount to buy the film rights. He thought about Errol Flynn for the part Montgomery Clift played, , but Flynn read the script and said no.
……….. Before Fredric March was cast as the father in the film version of THE DESPERATE HOURS, Wyler had sent the script to Spencer Tracy. (The March and Bogart roles had been originated by Karl Malden and Paul Newman on stage.).
A classic western.
A classic epic.
………..Wyler’s last film, FUNNY GIRL, won an Oscar for Barbra Streisand in 1968. He retired in 1970 after a long and illustrious career in which he , like the very best directors, proved that he could make great pictures in many genres, from westerns to musicals to period drama or romantic comedy.
My two favourite Wyler films are The Letter and The Best Years of Our Lives.
Other William Wyler films: