(University Press of Mississippi, 253 pages, $22)
Edited by Gabriel Miller
"I would hardly call myself an auteur—although I’m one of the few American directors who can pronounce the word correctly.” Thus spoke William Wyler at the twilight of his career, as the rise of auteurist film criticism brought studious, young interviewers to his doorstep to recap a magnificent career. And, despite his twelve best director nominations and three wins, seven DGA nominations and one win, and all the wonderful movies that he made, this was not mere false modesty. Wyler’s short speech of acknowledgment for his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1976 (included here) made claims for total auteurship only with the Super 8 home movies he made on retirement vacations with his wife. Instead, when talking of his Hollywood career, Wyler preferred to recognize the contributions of his collaborators, issuing fulsome praise for his cameramen (including the fabled Gregg Toland, with whom he developed—or refined—the multi-plane, deep-focus single take so admired by André Bazin for its “democratic” qualities); his many writers, and particularly his long-suffering but loyal actors (he wasn’t nicknamed “90-Take Wyler” for nothing).
In these interviews, conducted between 1939 and his death in 1981, Wyler repeats that the director should not shape a picture to his own ends, but shape himself to the picture’s needs—a lesson he learned during his apprenticeship making 40 silent Westerns a year for Carl Laemmle starting in 1922. Self-effacement enabled Wyler to make a dizzying variety of movies in nearly every genre and on every budget. Having learned early in his career that “these Westerns, all routine and elementary, had to move!” he applied that simple lesson to every project, from the epic spectacle of Ben-Hur to the three-set, precinct-house drama Detective Story.
An admirably succinct and precise speaker, Wyler ranges across his career and often tackles his own biggest irritation, the infantilizing effects of censors on his desire to make adult, socially minded dramas (both These Three and Detective Story suffered thanks to Hollywood’s timorous mores about lesbianism and abortion). With his reputation being questioned next to flashier stylists in the age of auteurist criticism, Wyler occasionally seems annoyed, but these interviews prove he knew better than anyone else the true measure of his achievement.
Review written by John Patterson.