William Wyler - Film Career

Film Career

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 2nd assistant editor. His work ethic was uneven with Irving Thalberg nicknaming him "Worthless Willy". After some ups and downs (including getting fired), he focused on becoming a director. 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 at turning out. In 1928, he became a naturalized United States citizen.

He directed his first non-Western, the lost Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, in 1928. These were followed by his first part-talkie films, The Shakedown and The Love Trap. He proved himself an able craftsman, and in the early 1930s began directing such films as Hell's Heroes, Tom Brown of Culver, 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).

Laurence Olivier, whom Wyler directed to his first-ever Oscar nomination, for Wuthering Heights, 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. 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. Charlton Heston won his only nomination and Best Actor Oscar for his work in Wyler's 1959 Ben-Hur. Barbra Streisand won 1968's Best Actress Oscar (as did Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter, in the only tie in Oscar history for this category) as entertainer Fanny Brice in Streisand's debut film, Funny Girl. Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar in her debut performance in Roman Holiday. 13 actors won Oscars under Wyler's direction. In 1941, Wyler directed one of the key films that galvanized support for Britain and against the Nazis in an America slow to awaken to the threat in Europe, it was Mrs. Miniver (1942), a story of a middle class English family adjusting to the war in Europe. Mrs. Miniver won Wyler his first Academy Award for Best Director, as well as another five Oscars.

A perfectionist, Wyler earned the nickname "90-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 in his performance in Ben-Hur, Wyler dismissed his concerns with "Be better".

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