Monday, Dec. 30, 2013

William Wyler’s Life and Films

Biography of a Celebrated Hollywood Director

By David Luhrssen
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Gabriel Miller states his case repeatedly in William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director (University Press of Kentucky): “Few directors could match Wyler’s range, his psychological subtlety, his sensibility, or his humanism.” Actually, it seems that most authors undertaking biographies of filmmakers from Hollywood’s golden age feel the same about “their” directors. And as for that subtitle, that depends on how “most celebrated” is defined. Wyler received more Oscar nominations than any director, yet, as Miller concedes on page one, he was not usually among the directors exalted for greatness by the pathfinding first generation of scholars and historians of Hollywood. John Ford, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock were justly celebrated. Wyler was, with exceptions duly noted by Miller, an also-ran.

But if Miller has a tendency to butter Wyler’s toast twice (and on both sides), his enthusiasm in no way diminishes the pleasure of reading his book. Miller plausibly reconstructs the director’s life without bogging down in the extraneous; he offers a knowing analysis of the films, breaking down shots and explicating the meaningful, recurring arrangements in the compositions.

Miller is not the first biographer to address Wyler, yet his varied and impressive accomplishments in cinema remain fertile ground for cineastes. Wyler directed 50 movies, many of them prestige pictures based on popular plays or novels. His range was no broader than many other directors working in the studio system and included costume dramas (Jezebel), biblical epics (Ben-Hur), film noir (Detective Story) and musicals (Funny Girl). As Miller reminds us, it was Wyler, not Orson Welles, who pioneered deep-focus photography with the help of cinematographer Gregg Toland.

Nowadays, Wyler is probably most celebrated for the charming comedy Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and The Best Years of Our Lives, the classic dramatization of veterans grappling with their return to civilian life. Miller directs our attention to a pair of intriguing, seldom seen later works: The Collector, a disturbing examination of a serial killer, and The Liberation of L.B. Jones, an unsparing look at American racism.

Historians have usually denied Wyler auteur status by accusing him of lacking consistent themes. Perhaps Miller’s great accomplishment is identifying Wyler’s worldview as social conscience coupled with skepticism over the value of pacifism. For Wyler, evil (or even the bad guys in a western) must be stopped by whatever means.

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