Film historian Ian Freer calls Wyler a "bona fide perfectionist", whose penchant for retakes and an attempt to hone every last nuance, "became the stuff of legend." His ability to direct a string of classic literary adaptations into huge box-office and critical successes made him one of "Hollywood's most bankable moviemakers" during the 1930s and 1940s and into the 60's. Through his talent for staging, editing, and camera movement, he turned dynamic theatrical spaces into cinematic ones.
He helped propel a number of actors to stardom, finding and directing Audrey Hepburn in her Hollywood debut film, Roman Holiday (1953), and directing Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl (1968). He directed Olivia de Havilland to her second Oscar in The Heiress (1949) and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), for his first Oscar nomination. Olivier credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen. And Bette Davis, who received three Oscar nominations under his direction and won her second Oscar in Jezebel (1938), said Wyler made her a "far, far better actress" than she had ever been.
Wyler was born to a Jewish family in Mulhouse, Alsace (then part of the German Empire). His Swiss-born father, Leopold, started as a traveling salesman which he later turned into a thriving haberdashery business in Mulhouse. His mother, Melanie (née Auerbach; died February 13, 1955, Los Angeles, aged 77), was German-born, and a cousin of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures. During Wyler's childhood, he 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.
Wyler was supposed to take over the family haberdashery business in Mulhouse, France. After World War I, he spent a dismal year working in Paris at 100.000 Chemises selling shirts and ties. He was so poor that he often spent his time wandering around the Pigalle district. After realizing that Willy was not interested in the haberdashery business, his mother, Melanie, contacted her distant cousin, Carl Laemmle who owned Universal Studios, about opportunities for him.
Laemmle was in the habit of coming to Europe each year, searching for promising young men who would work in America. In 1921, Wyler, while traveling as a Swiss citizen (his father's status automatically conferred Swiss citizenship to his sons), met Laemmle who hired him to work at Universal Studios in New York. As Wyler said: "America seemed as far away as the moon." Booked onto a ship to New York with Laemmle upon his return voyage, he met a young Czech man, Paul Kohner (later the famous independent agent), aboard the same ship. Their enjoyment of the first class trip was short-lived, however, as they found they had to pay back the cost of the passage out of their $25 weekly income as messengers to Universal Pictures. After working in New York for several years, and even serving in the New York Army National Guard for a year, Wyler moved to Hollywood to become a director.
Around 1923, Wyler arrived in Los Angeles and began work on the Universal Studios lot in the swing gang, cleaning the stages and moving the sets. His break came when he was hired as a second assistant editor. But, his work ethic was uneven, he would sneak off and play billiards in a pool hall across the street from the studio, or organize card games during working hours. After some ups and downs (including getting fired), Wyler focused on becoming a director and put all his effort into it. He started as a third assistant director and by 1925 he became the youngest director on the Universal lot directing the westerns that Universal was famed for turning out. Wyler was so focused on his work that he would dream about "different ways (for an actor) to get on a horse". In several of the one-reelers, he would join the posse in the inevitable chase of the 'bad man'.
He directed his first non-Western, the lost Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, in 1928. This was followed by his first part-talkie films, The Shakedown and The Love Trap. He proved himself an able craftsman. In 1928 he became a naturalized United States citizen.
In the early 1930s began directing such films as Hell's Heroes, Dead End, and The Good Fairy. He became well known for his 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). It was during this time that Wyler began his famous collaboration with cinematographer Greg Toland. Toland and Wyler virtually created the "deep focus" style of film making wherein multiple layers of action or characters could be seen in one scene, most famous being the bar scene in The Best Years of Our Lives. Toland went on to utilize the deep focus he mastered with Wyler when he shot Orson Welle's Citizen Kane.
Bette Davis received three Oscar nominations for her screen work under Wyler, and won her second Oscar for her performance in Wyler's 1938 film Jezebel. She told Merv Griffin in 1972 that Wyler trained her with that film to be a "far, far better actress" than she had been. She recalled a scene that was only a bare paragraph in the script, but "without a word of dialog, Willy created a scene of power and tension. This was moviemaking on the highest plane," she said. "A scene of such suspense that I never have not marveled at the direction of it." During her acceptance speech when she received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1977, she thanked him.
Laurence Olivier, whom Wyler directed in Wuthering Heights (1939) for his first Oscar nomination, credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for the screen, despite clashing with Wyler on multiple occasions. Olivier would go on to hold the record for the most nominations in the Best Actor category at nine, tied with Spencer Tracy. Critic Frank S. Nugent wrote in the New York Times, "William Wyler has directed it magnificently. It is, unquestionably, one of the most distinguished pictures of the year." Variety described Olivier's performance as "fantastic... he not only brings conviction to his portrayal but translates intelligently its mystical quality."
Five years later, in 1944, while visiting London, Wyler met with Olivier and his actress wife, Vivien Leigh. She invited him to see her performance in The Doctor's Dilemma, and Olivier asked him to direct him in his planned film, Henry V. But Wyler said he was "not a Shakespearian" and turned down the offer.
In 1950, Wyler and Olivier made a second film together, Carrie, which was not a commercial success. However, some critics state that it nonetheless contains Olivier's finest film performance, but because of its old-fashioned story, the film was very under-appreciated: In critic Michael Billington's opinion:
If there were any justice in the world, Laurence Olivier would have got an Oscar for his unforgettable performance in Carrie.
Director and screenwriter John Huston had been a close friend of Wyler during his career. When he was twenty-eight and penniless, sleeping in parks in London, Huston returned to Hollywood to see if he could find work. Wyler, four years his senior, had met Huston when he was directing his father, Walter Huston, in A House Divided in 1931, and they got along well. Wyler read dialogue suggestions that Huston had given to his father Walter and hired John to work on the dialogue for the script. He later inspired Huston to become a director and became his "early mentor." When America entered World War II in 1941, Wyler, Huston, Anatole Litvak and Frank Capra, by then all directors, enlisted at the same time. Later in his career, Huston recalled his friendship with Wyler during an interview:
Willy was certainly my best friend in the industry.... We seemed instantly to have many things in common.... Willy liked the things that I liked. We'd go down to Mexico. We'd go up in the mountains. And we'd gamble. He was a wonderful companion....He was equally capable of playing Beethoven on his violin, speeding around town on his motorcycle, or schussing down steep virgin snow trails.
In 1941, Wyler directed Mrs. Miniver, based on the 1940 novel; it was the story of a middle-class English family adjusting to the war in Europe and the bombing blitz in London. It starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon originally had doubts about taking on the role, until fellow actor Paul Lukas told him, "You will find working with Wyler to be the most delightful experience you ever had, and that's the way it turned out." Pidgeon recalls: "One thing that would have been a terrific regret in my life is if I had succeeded in getting out of doing Mrs. Miniver" He received his first Oscar nomination for his role, while his co-star, Greer Garson, won her first and only Academy Award for her performance.
The idea for the film was controversial, since it was intended to make America less isolationist. By portraying the real-life suffering of British citizens in a fictional story, Americans might be more prone to help Britain during their war effort. The film succeeded in its propaganda elements, showing England during its darkest days of the war. Years later, after having been in the war himself, Wyler said that the film "only scratched the surface of war... It was incomplete."
However, before America entered the war in December 1941, all films that could be considered anti-Nazi were banned by the Hays Office. Even the U.S. ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, told the studios to stop making pro-British and anti-German films. Kennedy felt that British defeat was imminent. But MGM producer Eddie Mannix disagreed, saying that "someone should salute England. And even if we lose $100,000, that'll be okay." Mrs. Miniver went on to win six Academy Awards, becoming the top box office hit of 1942. It was Wyler's first Academy Award for Best Director.
President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill both loved the film, said historian Emily Yellin, and Roosevelt wanted prints rushed to theaters nationwide. The Voice of America radio network broadcast the minister's speech from the film, magazines reprinted it, and it was copied onto leaflets and dropped over German-occupied countries. Churchill sent MGM head Louis B. Mayer a telegram claiming that "Mrs. Miniver is propaganda worth 100 battleships." Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review that Mrs. Miniver was the finest film yet made about the war, "and a most exalting tribute to the British."
Between 1942 and 1945 Wyler volunteered to serve as a major in the United States Army Air Forces and directed a pair of documentaries: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), about a Boeing B-17 and its U.S. Army Air Force crew; and Thunderbolt! (1947), highlighting a P-47 fighter-bomber squadron in the Mediterranean. Wyler filmed The Memphis Belle at great personal risk, flying over enemy territory on actual bombing missions in 1943; on one flight, Wyler lost consciousness from lack of oxygen. Wyler's associate, cinematographer Harold J. Tannenbaum, a First Lieutenant, was shot down and perished during the filming. Director Steven Spielberg describes Wyler's filming of Memphis Belle in the 2017 Netflix series, Five Came Back.
Working on Thunderbolt! Wyler was exposed to such loud noise that he passed out. When he awoke, he found he was deaf in one ear. Partial hearing with the aid of a hearing aid eventually came back years later. Wyler returned from the War a disabled veteran.
Returning from the War and unsure whether he could work again, Wyler turned to a subject that he knew well and 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). This story of the homecoming of three veterans from World War II dramatized the problems of returning veterans in their adjustment back to civilian life. Arguably his most personal film, Best Years drew on Wyler's own experience returning home to his family after three years on the front. The Best Years of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Director (Wyler's second) and Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as seven other Academy Awards.
In 1949 Wyler directed The Heiress, which earned Olivia de Havilland her second Oscar and garnered additional Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Music. The film is considered by some to be a highlight in her career, "that could strike envy even in the most versatile and successful actress," according to one critic.
De Havilland had seen the play in New York and felt she could play the lead perfectly. She then called Wyler to convince him to have Paramount buy the film rights. He flew to New York to see the play, and moved by the story, convinced the studio to buy it. Along with de Havilland, he managed to get Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson to co-star.
In 1951, Wyler produced and directed Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker in Detective Story, portraying a day in the lives of the various people in a detective squad. Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman made their screen debuts in the film, which was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Grant. Critic Bosley Crowther lauded the film, describing it as "a brisk, absorbing film by producer-director William Wyler, with the help of a fine, responsive cast."
During the immediate postwar period, Wyler directed a handful of critically acclaimed and influential films. Roman Holiday (1953) introduced Audrey Hepburn to American audiences in her first starring role, winning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Wyler said of Hepburn years later, when describing truly great actresses, "In that league there's only ever been Garbo, and the other Hepburn, and maybe Bergman. It's a rare quality, but boy, do you know when you've found it." The film was an instant hit, also winning for Best Costume Design (Edith Head), and Best Writing (Dalton Trumbo). Hepburn would eventually do three movies with Wyler, who her son said was one of the most important directors in her career.
Friendly Persuasion (1956) was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival. And in 1959, Wyler directed Ben-Hur, which won 11 Oscars, a feat unequaled until Titanic in 1997. He had also assisted in the production of the 1925 version.
Wyler and its star, Charlton Heston, both knew what the film meant for MGM, which had massive investments in its final outcome, with the film's budget having gone from $7 million to $15 million, and the fact that MGM was already in dire financial straits. They were aware that if it failed at the box office, MGM might go bankrupt.
The film, like many epics, was difficult to make. When Heston was asked which scene he enjoyed doing most, he said "I didn't enjoy any of it. It was hard work." Part of the reason for that was the financial stress placed on making the film a success. With a cast of fifteen thousand extras, a leading star, and being shot on 70mm film with stereophonic tracks, it was the most expensive film ever made at that time. The nine-minute chariot race, for example, took six months to film.
Ben-Hur became a great box office success. Wyler won his third Academy Award for Best Director and Charlton Heston his first and only Academy Award as its star. Heston recalled in his autobiography that at first he had doubts about taking the role. But his agent advised him otherwise: "Don't you know that actors take parts with Wyler without even reading the damn script? I'm telling you, you have to do this picture!"
Kirk Douglas had lobbied Wyler, who directed him in Detective Story in 1951, for the title role, but only after Wyler had already decided on Heston. He offered him instead the role of Messala, which Douglas rejected. Douglas then went on to star in Spartacus (1960).
Ben-Hur cost $15 million to produce but earned $47 million by the end of 1961 and $90 million worldwide. Audiences mobbed movie theaters in the months after it opened. Critic Pauline Kael praised Wyler's achievement:
I admire the artist who can make something good for the art house audience; but I also applaud the commercial heroism of a director who can steer a huge production and keep his sanity and perspective and decent human feelings beautifully intact.
In 1968 he directed Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl, costarring Omar Sharif, which became a huge financial success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and like Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role, Streisand won as Best Actress, becoming the thirteenth actor to win an Oscar under his direction.
Streisand had already starred in the Broadway musical of Funny Girl, with seven hundred performances. And although she knew the part well, Wyler still had to mold her stage role for the screen. She naturally wanted to be involved in the film's production, often asking Wyler questions, but they got along well. "Things were ironed out when she discovered some of us knew what we were doing," kidded Wyler.
What originally attracted him to direct Streisand was similar to what attracted him about Audrey Hepburn, who had also been new to film audiences. He met with Streisand during her musical run and became excited at the prospect of guiding another new star into an award-winning performance. He sensed and admired that Streisand had the same kind of dedication to being an actress as did Bette Davis, early in her career. "It just needed to be controlled and toned down for the movie camera." Wyler said afterwards:
I'm terribly fond of her. She was very professional, very good, a hard worker, too hard at times. She would work day and night if you would let her. She is absolutely tireless.
Wyler had worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland for six of his films, mostly in the 1930s. Toland used deep focus photographic technique for most of them, whereby he could keep all objects on the screen, whether foreground or background, in sharp focus at the same time. The technique gives the illusion of depth, and therefore makes the scene more true to life.
A perfectionist, Wyler earned the nickname "40-take Wyler". On the set of Jezebel, Wyler forced Henry Fonda through 40 takes of one particular scene, his only guidance being "Again!" after each take. When Fonda asked for more direction, Wyler responded, "It stinks." Similarly, when Charlton Heston quizzed the director about the supposed shortcomings of his performance in Ben-Hur, Wyler simply told Heston "Be better!" However, Heston notes that by the time a scene is done, regardless of how hard it was to do, it always came off well:
The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it. Your faith in his taste and what it will do for your performance is what makes casting a Wyler picture a cinch...doing a film for Wyler is like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You darn near drown, but you come out smelling like a rose."
Fourteen actors won Oscars under Wyler's direction, including Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938) and her nomination for The Letter (1940). Davis summed up their work together: "It was he who helped me to realize my full potential as an actress. I met my match in this exceptionally creative and talented director."
Other Oscar winners were Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949), Audrey Hepburn in her debut film, Roman Holiday (1953), Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959), and Barbra Streisand in her debut film, Funny Girl (1968).
Wyler's films garnered more awards for participating artists and actors than any other director's in the history of Hollywood. He received 12 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 G. Thalberg Memorial 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, 13 of Wyler's films earned Best Picture nominations. Other late Wyler films include The Children's Hour (1961), which was nominated for five Academy Awards. Later films included The Collector (1963), Funny Girl (1968), and his final film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970).
Wyler was briefly married to actress Margaret Sullavan (from November 25, 1934 – March 13, 1936) and married actress Margaret "Talli" Tallichet on October 23, 1938. The couple remained together until his death; they had five children: Catherine, Judith, William Jr., Melanie and David. Catherine said during an interview that her mother played an important part in his career, often being his "gatekeeper" and his reader of scripts presented to him.
On July 24, 1981, Wyler gave an interview with his daughter, Catherine, for Directed by William Wyler, a PBS documentary about his life and career. Three days later, he died from a heart attack. He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, near his older brother, Robert Wyler, sister-in-law, actress Cathy O'Donnell and his son, William "Billy" Wyler, Jr in Glendale, California.
Wyler is the most nominated director in Academy Awards history with 12 nominations. He won the Academy Award for Best Direction on three occasions, 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.
He has the distinction of having directed more actors to Oscar-nominated performances than any other director in history: thirty-six. Out of these nominees, fourteen went on to win Oscars. He received the fourth AFI Life Achievement Award in 1976. Among those who thanked him for directing her in her debut film, was Barbra Streisand.
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, on February 8, 1960, Wyler has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1731 Vine Street.
This is a list of films directed by William Wyler.
* Universal's Mustang Series. Wyler made 21 two-reeler films for this series, all with a duration of 24 minutes.
** Universal's Blue Streak Series. Wyler made 6 five-reeler films for this series, all with a duration of an hour.