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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | BIOGRAPHY

A TALENT FOR TROUBLE The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler By Jan Herman; Putnam: 500 pp., $30

December 29, 1996|STEVEN BACH

"A Talent for Trouble," Jan Herman's biography of William Wyler, is subtitled "The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director." Count his 12 Oscar nominations as director, three as producer, the three statuettes he bagged and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement. That's acclaim, all right, and if Herman over-stresses the academy's seal of approval, it is because Wyler's posthumous star has dimmed so radically that he is one of the most under-reported of big-name directors. That alone makes this biography welcome and useful.

[Wyler] is so hard to pinpoint and pigeonhole. How do you reconcile the snarling toughness of "Detective Story" with the silky misogyny of "The Little Foxes" or the homespun modesty of "Friendly Persuasion"?

Wyler's films don't suggest personality or style as much as they do career, which may have been his true calling. Herman has done his homework on the career. Herman's levelheaded premise is that Wyler's films were structured around the material at hand, rather than around a style or theory. Which may be enough. Wyler seemed to think so and was surprisingly unpretentious about it.

"It's 80% script and 20% you get great actors," he told somebody. "There's nothing else to it."

There was, in fact, a lot more to it, and the author does a workmanlike job of presenting the evidence.

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