As Catherine Wyler puts it, "My name dates me precisely." The daughter of film director William Wyler, she was born while her father worked on the 1939 "Wuthering Heights" and was named after the story's heroine, Catherine Earnshaw. "I remember in one of my tubbier periods, my mother saying to me, 'No one will ever say, "Oh, Catherine, your wasted hands!" ' "
Such is the life of a Hollywood child. Now neither tubby nor wasted, Catherine Wyler is the executive producer of a new movie about her father, who died in 1981. Tonight, "Directed by William Wyler" was shown at the Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. On the screen: Wyler, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, John Huston, Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand. In the audience: Robert Benton, Alan Pakula, Louis Malle, Hal Prince, Anne Jackson, novelist William Kennedy. Compatriots, admirers and many old friends -- a film crowd of people who, after retelling an anecdote about Greer Garson, could say, "Typical Greer!" -- all there to honor the director of such movies as "The Little Foxes," "Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Ben-Hur" and "Funny Girl."
Catherine Wyler, director of cultural and children's programming at the Public Broadcasting Service in Washington, first thought of producing a movie about her father about six years ago when George Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute and son of director George Stevens, told her about his movie.
"I think all those first-born juices got going," she said today. "He said he was making a movie about his father, and I thought, 'My daddy could lick his daddy.'
"I thought his work was being forgotten," she said of her father. "You could only see his films all chopped up on television. I was conscious of the fact his name wasn't being heard as much, and I thought the movie could be a spur for retrospectives of his work."
But just because Catherine Wyler wanted to make a movie didn't mean the movie would be made. William Wyler was known for his stubbornness, for what his daughter calls a "strong personality," and he immediately said no.
"He thought it was an awful idea," she said. It was often said of Wyler that he had no particular style, that he adapted his touch to suit each film. "He never was into any kind of self-promotion. I said, 'Oh, but Daddy, it will be fun.' He looked at me with this withering glance. 'Oh, yes, for you it will be fun. For me it will be work.' "
Wyler's wife of 42 years, Margaret, said at tonight's party, "The idea sort of bored him -- to have to sit there and answer all those questions . . . you know, if you've been around, everyone always says, 'What's your favorite movie? Which star did you like working with most?' It just kills you."
Catherine Wyler and interviewer Scott Berg agreed: no favorite movie and/or actress queries. Margaret Wyler persuaded her husband to cooperate, and with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and contributions from Hollywood friends, Catherine Wyler hired a director and a staff. The filming began. Three days after completing the first round of interviews, Wyler died of a heart attack.
"One day he was there, the next day he was gone. I didn't go near it for a year."
She had hoped to make a movie that would show her father in action as an "adventurer, a gambler, also a perfectionist." Now it was changed; the movie became a tribute, with the few interviews with Wyler as its centerpiece. It will be shown on PBS in the summer of 1987.
Catherine Wyler has always been tangentially involved in the film industry, working as a story editor on commercial films and then at the NEA, overseeing grants to independent producers, but she never thought of herself as a producer. However, as the years passed, she became increasingly intrigued with her father's work and the process he went through to create it.
"I always thought of him in a pool of light at night, pawing over a script. I would see him at the end of the room. It was like he was at the end of a tunnel. He'd disappear for three or four months and then emerge. I realized I was interested myself in finding out what that was like -- the obsession of making a movie."
Wyler was obsessive about his work and was known as "Forty-Take Wyler" because he insisted on shooting the same scene over and over again.
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz played cards with Wyler for years, but if they shared an interest in gin rummy, there were other areas of dissimilarity.
"I think I have the record for the smallest number of takes," Mankiewicz said at the party. He looked around the room, at the women with vaguely familiar faces from some long-ago movie, the young things with slick tans, the tweedy types and the delicate Italian shoe types and the man outside the door in tuxedo, long locks of gray hair hanging down to his shoulders. "If George Stevens shot this scene he'd take a massive number of shots. He'd take every conceivable angle. Then, when he'd edit, he'd put the picture together. I used to use what you call camera cutting. I didn't want anyone else cutting my scenes, so I did it in the camera."
In the Wyler tribute movie, Barbra Streisand says, "He just knew when it was right."
"Everyone had a lot of confidence in him," Catherine Wyler said. "The fact that they had confidence allowed them to do things they wouldn't otherwise, to open up more. But he never told them what to do -- that's one reason he was 'Forty-Take Wyler.' He would do it again and again until they found it.
"Huston says in the movie that what he wanted was a value so fine it would drown in the discussion of it."
Which didn't make it any easier to work on a Wyler film. Cinematographer Gregg Toland worked with Wyler many times, contributing his painstaking technique of deep-focus cinematography, which kept the foreground, middle distance and background in perfect focus. Wyler also liked to film in long, uninterrupted takes. All of this only added to the demanding nature of acting for a man who gave little advice to his actors.
Put a man like that up against a woman like Bette Davis and the results were predictable. In 1940's "The Letter" Davis walked off the set after one particularly energetic disagreement. She was playing a woman who had killed her lover and whose husband stands by her until she is clear of the murder. In the final scene, the husband asks her, "Do you love me?"
"Forty years later, they were still disagreeing over whether or not she should look her husband in the eye when she said, 'I'll always love the other man.' " Wyler said. He won. She looked him in the eye. "I mean he was the director. But when we interviewed him for the movie he said he was sure if he asked her now, 40 years later, to refilm the scene she would run right to the studio."
But whatever the duress on the set, the actors who worked with Wyler remain his devoted fans. Fourteen of them won Oscars for their performances in his films.
Tonight Robert Benton, an obvious admirer, said the criticism that there was no "Wyler style" was "ridiculous. He had a very strong signature," he said. "It's a signature of content as much as style that's subtly, if not necessarily easily, graspable. There's a consistent humanity in his work, a deep affection for his characters."
Catherine Wyler said she was touched by their enthusiasm when she told them of her planned movie.
"I told Bette Davis that the people who had seen the movie all said they fell in love with my father," said Wyler. "She said, 'Well, a lot of people did. People always did.' "