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William Wyler (July 1, 1902 – July 27, 1981) was a leading Americanmarker motion picture director and screenwriter. He was considered by his peers as second only to John Ford as a "master craftsman of cinema." The winner of three Best Director Academy Awards, again second only to John Ford.

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. Internationally, his films won another 19 awards and were nominated 34 times. After directing Dodsworth in 1936, starring Walter Huston and Mary Astor, he earned his first Oscar nomination, "sparking a 20-year run of almost unbroken greatness."

Film historian Ian Freer calls Wyler a "bona fide perfectionist," who's penchant for retakes and an attempt to hone every last nuance, "became the stuff of legend." As a result of his ability to direct a string of classic literary adaptations into huge box-office and critical successes, he became 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), Barbary Coast (1935), A House Divided (1931), and Hell's Heroes (1930).

Early life

Wyler was born Wilhelm Weiller to a Jewish family, a Swiss father and a German mother, in Mulhousemarker in the Frenchmarker region of Alsacemarker (then part of the German Empiremarker). 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 boat 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.

Film career

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 3rd 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 nomination, for Wuthering Heights, credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen. Bette Davis not only received three Oscar nominations for her screen work under Wyler, but 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.

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.

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 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.

Postwar career

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 only win, Friendly Persuasion (1956) which was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festivalmarker, and Ben-Hur (1959) which won eleven 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 Capra, Preston Sturges or Ford, although he frequently worked with 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.

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 Cemeterymarker in Glendalemarker, Californiamarker.

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.

Awards

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. The awards were 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. There are twelve other directors who have won two Academy Awards for Best Director.

William Wyler received the AFI LIfe Achievement Award in 1976.

Year Film Category Result
Academy Awards
1937 Dodsworth Best Director Nominated
1939 Wuthering Heights Best Director Nominated
1941 The Letter Best Director Nominated
1942 The Little Foxes Best Director Nominated
1943 Mrs. Miniver Best Director Won
1947 The Best Years of Our Lives Best Director Won
1950 The Heiress Best Director and Best Picture Nominated
1952 Detective Story Best Director Nominated
1953 Roman Holiday Best Director and Best Picture Nominated
1957 Friendly Persuasion Best Director Nominated
Friendly Persuasion Best Picture Nominated
1959 Ben-Hur Best Director Won
1966 The Collector Best Director Nominated
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


Filmography

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • 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 0-49101-302-7.


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