Sunday, March 19, 2006

More Takes on William Wyler

The Siren is delighted to see that the comments section for her post on Dodsworth has become a little love-in for the great William Wyler. The director occupies an odd spot in the cinephile pantheon. You wouldn't call him underrated, since his filmography makes him impossible to ignore. Yet somehow he doesn't get the same quality of attention as other directors of equal or even much lesser stature. Compare the wan little entry on Wyler in Wikipedia with the Hitchcock and Spielberg entries and you start to see what I mean.

He does consistently get his due when it comes to performances. His actors knew what they had with Wyler, even if his take-after-take style left their nerves shattered. Gentle Audrey Hepburn got her head bitten off by the director on the set of Roman Holiday when she couldn't cry on camera. The astonished Hepburn burst into tears, Wyler got his take and Hepburn, of course, later got her only Oscar. Ruth Chatterton, as noted, ended by hating Wyler's guts, but she lived long enough to see Dodsworth alone of all her movies retain its fame with the general public. "I would have jumped into the Hudson River if he told me to," said Bette Davis, who fell passionately in love with her director during the filming of Jezebel. Her second film with Wyler, The Letter, is the Siren's pick for the most subtle and penetrating performance she ever gave in a career filled with great roles. (According to Whitney Stine, Davis also liked to tell how costar Herbert Marshall managed to irritate "90-Take Willie" no end by just repeating "I'd be happy to do it again, Mr. Wyler," in that sterling-silver accent of his.)

Less frequently mentioned, but to the Siren's mind just as important, is Wyler's phenomenal ability to give his movies a sense of time and space. From the slum that abuts a luxury high-rise in Dead End, to the still, airless elegance of Washington Square in The Heiress, to an under-patronized bar in The Best Years of Our Lives, you enter the picture's world with total intensity and intimacy. So his actors aren't giving their all against a fantasy background you're either enjoying immensely or trying to ignore, as with Michael Curtiz; nor do they have to compete with an immutable set of scenic preconceptions, as they do with Hitchcock. In Wyler's best pictures--and the Siren thinks most of them are very good indeed--the players seem wholly truthful and in tune with the setting, no matter how epic or how small.

This Sunday, for her fellow Wyler lovers, the Siren is linking to two marvelous Wyler tributes. This one by David Cairns is on the indispensable Senses of Cinema site, and this one is by Josh Becker. Both men are directors, and that can't be a coincidence.


Patrick said...

Thanks for the links, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks he is an all time great. I sometimes wondered if I was just missing something. I did see a Wyler film on a favorites list in a completely unexpected place - Oliver Stone put "Best Years..." on his top 10 list, so some contemporary directors appreciate the guy.
(On a different topic - As one who encouraged you to see "Ride the High Country", I'm hoping you will post a few words on what you thought if you do get to see it)

Campaspe said...

Patrick - checking up me, huh? :) I am still scrambling for child care that evening but I am trying.

It makes total sense to me that Stone, as a Vietnam vet, would appreciate "Best Years" since I have never seen a better or more sensitive treatment of veterans.

surlyh said...

Wyler was a a prestige director who was praised and awarded during his career, so it's only natural that New Wave auteurist critics ignored him and embraced others who were overlooked and underappreciated that they could "discover". The auterist questions about Wyler are these: While he dilligently served script and performance again and again, what is Wyler's perspective? What are his themes?

To me the "space" that you describe in Wyler often has the feeling of the stage and provides a similar focus on the drama.

Off topic, but I just saw the rediscovered and restored "Beyond The Rocks" with Gloria Swanson and Valentino. While the film isn't much more than an average romantic melodrama, I thought you would be interested in the use of scent. This is from an(adoring)IMDB review: "I was also greatly impressed with how Swanson's heroine is symbolised by the odour of narcissus blossoms; this is one of the very few movies I've seen in which the erotic aspects of scent are used intelligently."

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I guess I'll have to play the contrarian and state that I have never been moved by THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. For one thing, it's too long. Too polished, too respectable, too measured, too Hollywood glossy (although that could be a hindsight view). I'll take THE LETTER or DODSWORTH or THE HEIRESS any day. And I would argue that his greatest film is ROMAN HOLIDAY. That kind of blithe spirit, with a final act of heartbreak, is a lot harder to achieve than socially correct heavy drama, even though I guess it's not the acceptable thing to say.

Bill said...

I can understand that kind of a reaction to "The Best Years of Our Lives" (that contrarian view) but in response, I offer this from something I scribbled out a while back:

"And yes, it does have that glossy, white bread Americana look to it but in many ways that is exactly the point. The movie perfectly evokes the post-war period (40's through 50's), a white middle-America vision of American life.

"This is deliberate in order to enunciate the irony of the movie's title and to illustrate its theme, war heroes returning to a life they barely recognize and into which it is so difficult to re-enter."

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Interesting point, Bill. But, eh, I still don't quite see it that way. But it's a solid movie. Just not his best, for me, anyway. It is interesting, though, how little you hear Wyler's name come up anymore among the pantheon of top directors of the classic age. Is it because the great directors are supposed to have a signature style and Wyler's work always suited the material first? He definitely deserves more respect, in that regard.

Exiled in NJ said...

Wonderful links! Cairns is onto something major when he mentions the performances Wyler coaxed from his casts. He mentions Oberon in These Three, but I think of March in 'Lives.' So often he acts five games ahead of the rest of the cast in his films, seemingly sure that he is the true thespian among them, but here he is really part of the ensemble, making the viewer forget that it is not William Powell married to Myrna Loy.

I think the 'show him the letter' scene in The Letter would come off as a melodramatic disaster in the hands of most directors, but Wyler uses silences, and those camera moves from mid-range to close up to exhibit the faces. The emotions of the two male characters are told in their faces.

As for Lives, I don't think any of us can re-create the emotions of 1946. Some of the film seems too perfect, like the jacket Dana Andrews wears. The people to whom it has true meaning are leaving our earth, but I suspect if Siren is writing twenty years from now, some may make the same comments for Coming Home.

Bill said...

I think Wyler is overlooked sometimes because there has always been a bigger focus on Billy Wilder and other directors like Michael Curtiz, both of whom in some ways are more flamboyant (not so much in directing style but in their public personalities etc.).

With the exception of Ben-Hur, I don?t think of Wyler when I think of big Hollywood stories. There has always been more ?buzz? around other directors which had nothing to do with filmmaking.

And Wyler also seems to be the kind of director I most enjoy, the kind you don?t notice. In other words, when I?m watching a film I want to be pulled into its story. I don?t want to be aware of the directing, camera work, lighting and so on, except in retrospect. Though the directing may be skillful, artistic and everything else, I think if you?re aware of it as you watch it is impeding the story because it is a distraction, even if a pleasant one.