William Wyler’s Demanding Sets Were a Rite of Passage for Hollywood’s Greatest Stars


William Wyler was one of classic Hollywood’s greatest directors of actors — and also, according to the performers he worked with, one of its biggest pains in the neck. The archetypal story of working with Wyler was told by Laurence Olivier to Wyler’s biographer, Jan Herman, about endless retakes of one of Olivier’s scenes as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939). “For God’s sake,” the future Lord Olivier raged at last, “I did it standing up. I did it sitting down. I did it fast. I did it slow. I did it with a smile. I did it with a smirk. I did it scratching my ear. I did it with my back to the camera. How do you want me to do it?” Then came the classic Wyler response: “I want it better.”

The twenty-five films in the Quad Cinema’s William Wyler retrospective (December 1–14) stretch out like a banquet composed entirely of elaborate main courses. Not for Wyler were the exercises in smuggling larger concerns into small genre films. Wyler put big themes in big movies, often ones adapted from classic literature or hit plays; indeed, the highbrow quality of his taste in material has often been held against him. The Oscars that Wyler films won year-in and year-out, as dependably as a tennis champ returns a serve, seem suspicious to some critics.

But where other award-winning white elephants lumber off, never to be seen again save the occasional overnight slot on TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar,” Wyler’s films remain beloved in a way that the likes of Crash will never know. To watch or rewatch (and rewatch again) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Wyler’s undisputed masterpiece, is to rediscover moments that helped define careers, like Fredric March, in the role of veteran Al Stephenson, awakening hungover in a bedroom that is no longer familiar to him and comparing the face in the mirror with a prewar photo of the man he will never be again. Or the scene of the disabled Homer Parrish (real-life wounded veteran Harold Russell, sporting steel hooks for hands) coming home to his family and his “swell girl,” Wilma, which is as moving as any Wyler ever filmed — and so is the prelude, when Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) watches Homer walk away and says sadly, “I hope Wilma is a swell girl.”

Scenes like those meant that, for many years, a role in a William Wyler movie was more or less a down payment on that gold statuette, or at least a nomination. Thirty-five actors got Oscar nods for a Wyler film, and thirteen won; sophisticated cinephiles may not care about such matters, but actors certainly do. He made them suffer for it, though, earning the nickname “Forty-Take Wyler,” or even, at his most demanding, “Ninety-Take Wyler.” Audrey Hepburn no doubt counted herself lucky to get the kid-glove treatment from Wyler during her first leading role, in Roman Holiday (1953) — until the day he needed her to cry, and he got the tears by yelling at her in front of cast and crew. Ruth Chatterton gave the performance of her career as Fran, the vain and selfish wife in Dodsworth (1936), and according to witnesses (including Mary Astor), Wyler had to drag Chatterton into giving it, the actress almost literally kicking and screaming. During one scene in Dead End (1937), Humphrey Bogart’s gangster returns to his mother (Marjorie Main) only to have his face slapped. Trouble was, the stage-trained Main didn’t know how to cheat the slap for the camera. Wyler asked for take after take, until Bogey’s face began to swell and he informed his director that he was going to “wipe the floor” with his movie mother if she did it again.

During the making of The Big Country (1958), Wyler enraged a trifecta of collaborators: Charles Bickford stormed off the set after one take too many; Gregory Peck quit speaking to Wyler for years after the movie was finished, ironically because Wyler refused to shoot another take on request; and cool-tempered Jean Simmons hated making the picture so much that Wyler was a forbidden interview subject for much of her remaining life. Another doozy: After dozens of takes of the scene in The Heiress (1949) where a desolate, jilted Catherine Sloper drags her suitcase up the stairs of her mansion, the famously ladylike Olivia de Havilland picked up the empty case and heaved it directly at Wyler. He responded by filling it with books. In the movie, when de Havilland drags that burden upstairs, it’s as though we are watching Sisyphus himself.

But whether the actor in question ended up respecting Wyler, or swearing never again, as did Bogart (“Jesus, don’t touch it, don’t go in there,” he told Henry Fonda, who co-starred in Jezebel), the proof was in the results. Bogart’s role in Dead End was an early high point on his way to tough-guy immortality; Dead End is drastically underrated these days for being set-bound, but it is beautifully so, with impeccable compositions and cinematographer Gregg Toland’s poetic use of the street’s changing light. Wuthering Heights breezily chops off fully half of the novel’s plot, yet of all the many later versions, Wyler’s remains by far the one closest to Emily Brontë’s wild romantic spirit. The Big Country was one of the films that gave Wyler a reputation for torpid bloat, but these days its pictorial magnificence — Wyler demanded locations for this tale of the American West that looked untouched by civilization — its great cast, and its evident Cold War allegory make the film more absorbing in many ways than the far more celebrated Ben-Hur (1959). Even the sprawling Ben-Hur got a performance of unusual subtlety out of Charlton Heston; the one element that doesn’t work throughout is his character’s romance with Esther, played by the wooden Haya Harareet.

Bette Davis’s work with Wyler also turned out pretty well: three movies, three nominations, and one win, for Jezebel (1938), the dark feminist flip side to Gone with the Wind of a year later. But it was their second film together that drew Davis’s best work, indeed possibly the high-water mark of her career, as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (1940). The script began abruptly, with the famous scene of Leslie stalking out on a tropical veranda and impassively pumping a man full of lead. It was Wyler’s idea to foreshadow the film’s entire tragedy with his camera’s long, sinuous prowl through the sleeping Malaysian rubber plantation, and it is that buildup to the murder that gives the opening its unforgettable power.

The following year’s The Little Foxes (1941) was a miserable experience for both actress and director, as Davis refused to alter her playing of viperous Regina Giddens, insisting that the way Tallulah Bankhead had played Regina onstage was the only way to interpret the part. In the end, Davis’s way works extremely well, but the beauty of cinematographer Gregg Toland’s work is the true draw (all the more so on 35-millimeter, which is how the vast majority of the Quad’s series will be screened). Toland is celebrated for his brilliant use of deep focus that made a scene’s action clearly visible all the way to the back of the shot, but the film’s famous climax doesn’t use it. Regina’s husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall), has spilled the heart medicine that’s been keeping him alive — but Regina doesn’t want him to survive. Toland told Wyler that he could have Regina in focus, Horace in focus, or both. Wyler chose Regina, the chilling face of a sociopath, while dimly, in the background, Horace makes his agonizing crawl up the stairs to fetch his medicine.

Indeed, Wyler’s visual command was as strong as his way with actors. He achieved stellar work with Toland through six films, even on something like the more conventionally shot These Three in 1936, a triangular romance that succeeds despite censoring the lesbian plot of The Children’s Hour, the Lillian Hellman play on which it’s based. But Wyler achieved great results with others, such as Rudolph Maté on Dodsworth, full of gorgeous shots such as the one of Walter Huston, in the title role, gazing out the window at the factory he built from scratch and will soon leave forever. More proof is available in Mrs. Miniver (1942), lensed by Joseph Ruttenberg, which film historian Mark Harris considers one of Wyler’s most underrated films (Harris has also pointed out that the first season of Downtown Abbey echoes a key Miniver plot thread in nearly every detail.) The film deserves a second look for complex moments like the one where the Miniver family tries to stay calm during an air raid, until the children wake up and they can’t pretend any longer. Even in the twilight of his career, Wyler was capable of stretching himself, as with the disturbing serial-killer drama The Collector (1965) and the delicious caper comedy How to Steal a Million (1966).

The title of the Quad series, “More Than Meets the Eye,” is a response to Andrew Sarris’s having placed Wyler in the “Less Than Meets the Eye” chapter of his canonical book The American Cinema. To read the history of critics on William Wyler is to discover a world of backhanded compliments — words like elegant, stylish, sensitive, emotional. Rewatching his films today offers an opportunity to reclaim those qualities for the virtues they always were.

“More Than Meets the Eye: William Wyler”
Quad Cinema
December 1–14