Today is William Wyler’s 120th birthday.
Wyler’s career lasted from the silent era to the dawn of the New Hollywood. He worked with many of the Old Hollywood’s biggest stars and put out a number of films which are now considered classics. And yet, he is rarely listed as one of the ultimate masters of cinema, despite his excellent track record.
You can blame the so-called “auteurist” critics who started dominating film criticism in the 1960s. The auteur theory essentially views the film’s director as the “author” of a movie. When applying auteurist analysis to a film, you’re essentially trying to discover connections between a filmmaker’s body of work. What are the repeated themes, motifs, and techniques? Think of Ford’s presentation of the old west, Kubrick’s cynical vision of society, or Hitchock’s affection for “the wrong man” trope. I’m not at all anti-auteurism and do believe this type of analysis can be applied to particular filmmakers. However, it becomes problematic when the romanticized notion of a “unified” body of work allows critics to turn their noses up at a great craftsman like William Wyler.
I’ve come to disdain the idea that a “well-directed” movie equals a self-consciously stylish movie. With Wyler, you never notice any stylistic flourishes on a first viewing because he utterly absorbs you into the world of the story. His direction of actors and choice of compositions are often second to none. His versatility with many genres goes to show he was a man who disliked repeating himself. What makes him uninteresting to the aueturists is ironically what makes him such a top-notch director.
I’m going to close out with my top five favorite Wyler movies. The man made such a number of classic films that it was honestly torture to narrow the number down so much, but if you were to ask for recommendations, these are the ones I would offer up as definitive examples of Wyler’s cinematic mastery.
Poignant is the best word to describe Carrie. Based on a grim urban novel by Theodore Dreiser, the film version strikes me as more emotional and tragic, with less of a clinical eye on its central characters, a young woman and her older lover whose fortunes progress in opposite trajectories. Wyler recreates turn of the century Chicago with great skill and doesn’t overplay the potential soapiness of the scenario. I also think this film showcases the career-best performance of Laurence Olivier, which is no small feat. He is truly heartbreaking.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. It is a complicated, emotionally raw work of art that has yet to be adequately adapted into a visual medium. The Wyler adaptation is often scorned by Bronte purists because it cuts off half of the novel, de-emphasizes the themes of cyclical abuse, and sands the more unpleasant edges off Catherine and Heathcliff, the novel’s doomed lovers. But I don’t care: Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is a glorious example of gothic melodrama with its chilly black-and-white cinematography and powerful performances. It has the same passion and quiet menace as later “Hollywood gothics” of the 1940s, like Gaslight or Dragonwyck.
Even though Wyler loved tackling different genres, this dark psychological thriller seems such an odd fit for him. The story of an obsessed bank clerk who imprisons the woman he’s desired from afar in his basement, the material is disturbing, with heavy psychosexual themes and a complicated power dynamic between captor and captive. Considering this was also filmed during the 1960s, a period of radical change in both society and the film industry, one might think the older Wyler would not be up to the task. To the contrary, he does stunning work, keeping location fatigue from creeping into this one-setting thriller with his sharp eye for dramatic compositions and drawing out fantastic work from Terence Davis and Samantha Eggar.
Roman Holiday is known one of the great “a star is born” movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, a sheltered princess who finds love and adventure with a charming journalist in Rome. While most discussion of the film focuses on Hepburn, Wyler’s direction is also deserving of praise. I love the subtle ways he generates humor, like the parallel shots of the princess looking up at the elaborate carvings along the ceiling in her lush bedroom, then later awaking in Gregory Peck’s apartment to ugly industrial pipes shot from a similar angle. And of course, there’s the wonderful handling of tone, which blends light humor with a bittersweet lyricism, building to one of the most perfect endings in film history.
I have not yet seen all of Wyler’s films (The Best Years of Our Lives is my biggest oversight in that regard), but to date, I think The Heiress is his masterpiece. Adapted from a play which was itself adapted from a Henry James novella, The Heiress follows a timid, affection-starved heiress (played by Olivia De Havilland in a career-best performance) in love with a handsome charmer who may or may not be more interested in her money than her heart. It’s a movie that could have easily devolved into campy melodrama, but the characters are all complicated, with even the antagonists showing a great deal more ambiguity than you would expect of such a film. Once again, Wyler shows great skill with the material. Beneath the mannered drawing room surface, this is one emotionally brutal, even cruel movie, so packed with little nuances in the acting and visuals that it absolutely merits repeated viewings.