Film Directors with Their Shirts and Trousers Off

William Wyler.

Wyler was quite the man of action — “A great man for a high ledge,” as John Huston reminisces in the excellent documentary DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER. Wyler himself appears chirpy and pixie-like in interview, unrecognizable from the many stories of on-set meanness which we have to accept as a more truthful picture of his filmmaking temperament. He also appears full of life — and yet, a few days after the interview was shot, he stopped breathing, and never took it up again.

I resisted looking at WW’s films for years, based on his Oscar-winning status, which usually implies turgidity and mediocrity, and based on the stories I’d read of his sonofabitchiness. Now I love his films, and even sneakingly admire his nastier side, which was honestly concentrated on getting good results from his actors (and it worked), even though I deplore cruelty, and Wyler could certainly be very cruel. He did do it with a kind of wit, though.

What I learned from Wyler is tenacity, although it’s doubtful I or anyone else could bear to do as many takes as he did, not to get choices or coverage, but just in pursuit of the right moment for the film at hand. He was indefatigable and merciless, two valuable traits in the screen trade.

29 Responses to “Film Directors with Their Shirts and Trousers Off”

  1. Wyler looks like a mean water-skier if that’s any help.

    Wyler I think had the problem that a lot of his best films weren’t necessarily his most popular, most successful or most awarded. Ben-Hur which he disliked making and did it for hire became the Great White Oscar Monstrosity. That’s what ruined his reputation for a long time but then his best work like The Little Foxes, The Heiress, Dodsworth, Carrie are among the most sophisticated and adult films in Hollywood at that time. And he was an excellent director of actors.

    Wyler’s wit was indeed fantastic. When asked about Ben-Hur, he said, “It takes a Jew to tell a story like this.”

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Even if you don’t like BEN HUR, you have to admire what Wyler managed to do with it. He and (uncredited) screenwriter Gore Vidal came up with a gay subtext between Ben Hur and Messala, giving the film an emotional content it would have totally lacked otherwise.

    Of course, they let co-star Stephen Boyd in on the secret…but made him swear NOT to tell Charlton Heston. Nobody did, and Heston duly won an Oscar – even though he hadn’t the faintest clue what his role was about.

    A great director of actors indeed!

  3. And Heston went to his grave convinced (sincerely, I think) that this was all scurrilous gossip from Gore. Yet it would be pretty hard for any modern adult audience to see the film without being poked in the eye by that subtext. It’s as blatant as Gilda.

    Wyler’s greatest feat was to get an Oscar for High Griffiths, playing an Arab with a Welsh accent. And Griffiths had played middle-eastern characters before, doing some kind of stock foreign voice… Presumably WW didn’t think that was good enough. It’s a very strange effect.

    Wyler got plenty of praise for Dodsworth, The Heiress, The Little Foxes… only Carrie flopped, which did set him on a somewhat less productive course, I fear. His last film, The Liberation of LB Jones, is technically sloppy but still an excoriating film on race in America. Wyler was quite pleased at managing to piss off absolutely everybody.

  4. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Performances in The Children’s Hour were pretty terrific when I saw it recently.

    David thank you I got my DVDs yesterday, very thoughtful of you. I can’t wait to find a few hours to watch them.

  5. Feel bad I didn’t think to include Variety Lights, which is maybe the best of the three you mentioned. Another time!

    The kids and adults are alike fantastic in both The Children’s Hour and These Three. Awe-inspiring work. Great seeing a tiny Veronica Cartwright sniveling her way through TCH.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Sorry, but I just can’t buy the performances in THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (apart from the ever-sublime Miriam Hopkins). Shirley Maclaine gets stuck playing a grotesque caricature of a lesbian, while poor Audrey Hepburn doesn’t appear to know what a lesbian is!

  7. Wyler’s film of Elmer Rice’s Counseler-at-Law jump-started his career big time. Several years back they played it at a Wyler tribute at the Academy (Heston was present but looked confused, ghastly and was by that time speaking was out of the question. I don’t know why they brought him — it was painful.) Shown on the big screen the film was a wonder. John Barrymore in the title role, giving the sort of performance that made him a star for a previous genration. Incredible sets that took what started as a standard “filmed play” into another dimension. Plus an incredible supporting cast: Bebeb Daniels as his faothful secretary, Thelma Todd and Mayo Methot as a couple of gold-diggers, Vincent Sherman as an anarchist (Barrymore’ mother wants him to defend him in court cuase he’s a nieghborhood boy) and a pre-teen Richard Quine as Barrymore’s snotty stepson. Being Rice and pure 30’s the play handily deals with anti-semitism, social-climbing, and how the law REALLY works.
    You can tell right away this is thr work of director of imagination and distinction.

  8. Interestingly Jean-Pierre Melville loved The Children’s Hour and preferred it to Wyler’s earlier de-gayed version, These Three. He said it was a very accurate picture of Boston society.

  9. How familiar was Melville with Boston society?

    It seems quite possible Audrey’s character wouldn’t know what a lesbian was. Shirley seems a bit ashamed of the film, going by her interview in The Celluloid Closet.

    I love Counsellor at Law, though I’ve never seen it on the big screen. Barrymore was struggling to remember his lines, which made it hard work for Wyler, something later generations probably had to pay for. “I hate lousy actors,” he’d grumble. But I’m on the whole glad Barrymore did it and not Muni.

  10. Melville spent HUGE amounts of time in the U.S. In L’Aine des Ferchaux</i. there's even a ritual visit to Frank Sinatra's birthplace.

    Re his remarks on Boston he was talking about attitudes he falt Fay Bainter embodied. And goodness knows declaratiosn of "knowing nothing" about lesbianism are pretty damned pathetic.

    Shirley MacClaine was really great in her big "confession" scene, practically exploding from the force of finally saying what she felt for so long and had repressed like mad.

  11. Jenny Eardley Says:

    I watched it on DVD and had to stop it a few minutes before the end. I was SO pissed off that when I had to resume by going through the chapter selection the picture they chose is a massive spoiler of the whole film. Careful if anyone hasn’t seen it. Very shoddy.

    Each to their own but I think Audrey’s character didn’t know what she was and guilt over her engagement was getting in the way.

  12. Melville was a huge admirer of Wyler because Wyler represented the apex of the sturdy, impeccable craftsmanship that he loved and modelled himself on. I bet Wyler would have been impressed with that ten minute take in Le Doulos which most people fail to recognize at first glance.

    I’ve heard of Councellor At Law would love to see it…

  13. Robert Wise was Melville’s other craftsmanship model.

  14. I’ve been meaning to watch A House Divided for ages, the idea of Walter Huston and Douglass Montgomery is intriguing. Wyler not only cast well, he put together odd combinations.

  15. I’m a HUGE fan of this one (which is on You Tube complete)

  16. Christopher Says:

    Need to see Counsellor at Law again,was really impressed with it even at Jr. high age on the early morning movie!..
    along with the Heiress and Little foxes..some other faves of mine..Dead End…The Westerner…Roman Holiday..The Desperate Hours…Was never that big a fan of Best Years of Our Lives..

  17. The Heiress is HEAVEN! Monty and Olivia at their very best. An Aaron Copeland score, and one great scene after another climaxed by one of my all-time favoirte lines: “Cruel? You call me cruel? I have been taught by MASTERS!”

  18. Christopher Says:

    Olivia is supposed to be homely in Heiress,but I like her dark or not..

  19. Olivia would boldly go without makeup or wear unflattering hairstyles if the part required it, but generally looked great anyway.

    Add The Letter and The Good Fairy to my list of faves.

  20. Here she had a REALLY great look —

  21. Don’t forget the great Ralph Richardson as the nasty patriarch, invoking the role with a gravitas that no one could give it.

  22. Christopher Says:

    His warmth of human understanding!
    ‘aw I can’t get nothing across to these sons of bitches!”

    Olivia de Havilland had to grow on me over the years.I had thought she seemed too matronly for the likes of Errol Flynn.

  23. Olivia de Havilland, matronly? Amazing how people’s perceptions can differ. I guess I’ve seen her in too many comedies and ’30s films to consider her anything close to matronly.

  24. What’s great about Ralph is the slightly abstracted quality he always has, not quite in tune with reality, which in The Heiress mutates into a complete lack of sympathy for those around him.

    I probably fell in love with Olivia when I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream as a kid. Sometimes have found her heroines a bit sugary, but she could play anything. Heard a recent radio interview, she’s still lots of fun.

  25. david wingrove Says:

    And she still looks fabulous at 94!

  26. david wingrove Says:

    Hope I look that good when I’m 49!

  27. Christopher Says:

    well..more mature, to someone like Errol Flynn..that was my introduction to her at an early age..not long after I saw James Caan belch in her face in Lady in a nothing sacred??

  28. Speaking of Olivia de Havilland, her portrayal in To Each His Own made my eyes water – such a performance. Also, after numerous viewings of Gone With The Wind, and getting older in the process, I came to find her role most convincing. When a movie is made, considering the mores of society, we view it one way, but as we age, and view the movie again, we see things differently. The movie may be the same, but it is we who have changed. Guess there is something about living in France, Olivia still is an attractive woman.

  29. Director Mitchell Leisen was petitioned by American cinema owners to extend the end credits of To Each, since patrons were stumbling from the auditoria, blinded by tears, and bashing their foreheads on pillars and walls, with alarming frequency. Leisen rightly refused.

    Olivia is without doubt the best actor in Gone with the Wind, so it makes sense that she emerges as the strongest with repeated viewings, even though obviously Scarlett and Rhett are the more dynamic characters.

    Olivia has not only preserved her beauty without obvious recourse to the knife or peel, she’s chosen to live in a country where older women are more appreciated: two smart decisions from a smart lady.

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