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The Best Films of His Life

A retrospective puts the spotlight back on the works of director William Wyler, master of drama and comedy alike.

May 05, 1996|Jan Herman | Jan Herman is a Times staff writer and the author of a new William Wyler biography, "A Talent for Trouble" (Putnam)

Of his more than 60 pictures, William Wyler always said he felt closest to "The Best Years of Our Lives," which tells the story of three victorious World War II veterans who return home to Boone City, their small Midwestern town, shadowed by a sense of loss and dislocation. It was also the easiest to make, Wyler said, because he knew from experience "just how these fellows feel."

Like the bombardier (Dana Andrews), he'd flown in combat on B-17 raids over Germany; like the sergeant (Frederic March), a banker before the war, he had a secure job and adoring family waiting for him but also a sense of survivor's guilt; and like the sailor (Harold Russell), an amputee who came back without his hands, Wyler returned from the war his hearing mostly gone (totally deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other).

Wyler went out of his way to cast a real amputee with "hooks" for hands and no acting experience. Now 82, Russell, who won an Oscar, recalls that the director's identification with him was so clear it bolstered his confidence as an actor and kept others from patronizing him.

Their first meeting over lunch at the Brown Derby was emblematic. Russell says that when Wyler was paying the bill "somebody who knew him came up and said, 'Gee, that guy does a pretty good job with the hooks.' Wyler said, 'Yeah, he does a fantastic job. He did the shrimp cocktails. He ate the salad. He cut the steak. The one thing he can't do is pick up the check.' "

Says Russell: "It's a funny story, but it really put me at ease--and it's the truth."

On Thursday, the Directors Guild of America will present a free 50th-anniversary screening of "The Best Years of Our Lives," launching a retrospective of a dozen William Wyler films that is co-sponsored by the UCLA Film and Television Archives.

The most rarely seen movie in the retrospective is "Counsellor-at-Law," made in 1933 with John Barrymore. Wyler, then 31, had already directed three dozen pictures. But this was the first time he was working with an acting legend. Barrymore, who was getting $25,000 a week in the title role, had been signed for only two weeks. Wyler was under strict orders not to slow down, even for the star's close-ups. "It was a terrible way to make a picture," Wyler said--especially because the frequently hungover Barrymore had trouble remembering his lines.

Though the young director still managed to draw out what is probably Barrymore's best film performance, Wyler was proudest of something else: "I retained the construction of the play and gave an illusion of movement. We never left the lawyer's offices. But no critic ever wrote that it was just a photographed stage play."

Wyler made "Dodsworth" three years later with Walter Huston, among his favorite actors. Huston was "letter-perfect," he said. "No acting ruses, no acting devices, just the convincing power that comes from complete understanding of a role." Wyler liked "Dodsworth" so much that he put himself into it. When the camera pans across a Viennese nightclub, Wyler can be glimpsed as the middle violinist in the front row. "Don't cut shot of orchestra, whatever you do," he warned his film editor.

During production of "The Little Foxes," Wyler wrote Lillian Hellman, who'd adapted her play to the screen: "I'm directing with the new script in one hand, your old script in the other and a copy of the play in the third. I have also grown an extra head for headaches."

His biggest headache was Bette Davis, playing the central role of Regina. Star and director, former lovers, argued over everything from Davis' makeup to her interpretation of the role. She got so mad she walked off the set for 17 days. Wyler hated that she was aping Tallulah Bankhead's performance in the original stage production.

Finally, he asked Hellman to help straighten out Davis. "I am bewildered that you are having so much trouble with Regina," Hellman wrote her. "[Many] can testify to my very great objection to the way Tallulah was playing the part. It was vulgar and it was cheap, and it was a complete misinterpretation."

Wyler was glad when filming ended. He took great satisfaction that "The Little Foxes" didn't depend strictly on its star. It was an ensemble piece, he said repeatedly. And he was grateful to Patricia Collinge in particular for her remarkable supporting performance as a woman reduced to alcoholic despair by a husband who'd married her for her money and now treated her with contempt.

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