Thursday, March 3, 2011

William Wyler

Despite being one of the greatest directors of all-time, most modern viewers haven't heard of William Wyler even if they know of other old-time legends like Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra. Wyler is the Meryl Streep of directors when it comes to Oscar nominations. Or rather, we should say that that Streep is the Wyler of actors as his last nomination came 13 years before her first.

Wyler was nominated for best director twelve times from 1937-1966. Second most is Billy Wilder with 8 nominations (Speilberg is in a 4-way tie for fifth with six nominations, to give you a modern name). Wyler is pictured above (left) with John Ford, the only director who has won more directing Oscars than Wyler (though he did so on just five nominations).

Wyler has also directed more best picture nominees (thirteen) and winners (three) than anyone else. His films themselves also, not surprisingly, have garnered more total nominations (127) and wins (39) [].

His best known film is, undoubtedly, 1959 best picture Ben-Hur. He also directed Barbara Streisand's first movie Funny Girl, Audrey Hepburn's breakout in Roman Holiday, Laurence Olivier's first acting nomination in Wuthering Heights, and Bette Davis to acting nominations in four different movies. And this doesn't touch his two other Oscar winning films Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

I had to watch two Wyler directed nominees recently to finish his thirteen - The Letter (1940) and Dead End (1937).

The Letter opens (no pun intended) with Bette Davis shooting a man to death. She explains to her husband and his friends when they arrive that the man she killed was making unwanted physical advances toward her and she was acting in self-defense. Her story seems a little too well rehearsed, but no one can poke any holes in it. Then a letter surfaces that, if revealed, would turn her open-and-shut self-defense case into anything but. The movie seems simple by the standard of modern thrillers, but is still entertaining.

Dead End is set in New York City during the Great Depression. Where the streets end and meet the river, a rich neighborhood and urban riffraff also intersect. Humphrey Bogart plays a local big-time criminal who had to flee the state but has returned after having face-altering plastic surgery. But the real story is of the kids in a small street gang and the decisions that could lead their lives to a similar dead end as the one on the street they haunt.

77 to go...

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