William Wyler appears to have been, on occasion, absolutely exasperating as a director. He knew what he wanted from a scene but had difficulty communicating that to his actors. Charlton Heston says that well into the shooting of "Ben-Hur," Wyler took him aside to express dissatisfaction with Heston's performance. Wyler's prescription: "Be better."
In "Directed by William Wyler," a brisk, funny and heartfelt tribute to this inarguably great filmmaker, many of the actors who worked with Wyler rattle off their cherished horror stories, mostly of having to go through take after take of a scene until the master was satisfied. "He made me do 48 takes in front of 250 extras," sputters Bette Davis of her servitude on "Jezebel."
But what also becomes clear from the one-hour documentary, at 9 tonight on Channel 26, is the genuine respect and affection those same actors felt for Wyler. "Actors fought to work with Willie," says Gregory Peck, who made "Roman Holiday." Laurence Olivier, who says Wyler once pronounced his 63rd take of a scene in "Wuthering Heights" to be "lousy," also says Wyler taught him how to act on the screen. And even Davis declares, "If Willie Wyler asked me to jump in the Hudson River, I would."
Also remembering Wyler in the film, offered as part of the PBS "American Masters" series, are Audrey Hepburn, Greer Garson, Barbra Streisand, Wyler's wife Talli, his unpleasant friend Lillian Hellman and fellow director Billy Wilder, who says he began weeping only a few minutes into Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" and never stopped until the picture was over.
"And I'm not a pushover, believe me," says Wilder. "I laugh at 'Hamlet.' "
But the most valuable commentary comes from Wyler himself. He was interviewed by the filmmakers in July 1981, only three days before his death. He seems wiry, blunt and refreshingly unsentimental, as is this film. There is none of the usual rhapsodic gush that one encounters at tributes and awards shows. We are not being lectured to about Wyler's greatness, but it comes through brilliantly nevertheless.
The man who made "Friendly Persuasion," "The Big Country," "The Heiress," "The Little Foxes" and "Mrs. Miniver" complains about those who decreed his films have no "signature," no identifiable stylistic trademark. Perhaps the problem is that the unifying element is substance, not style, and that Wyler was clearly attracted to material through which he could express his rugged, stubborn humanism. "The Best Years of Our Lives" captures the emotional truth of the postwar era better than any newsreel or documentary from the period ever could.
Wyler says the famous homecoming scene -- with Myrna Loy rushing, speechless, to Fredric March, who waits at the end of a long hallway -- was based on his own homecoming from the war. Wife Talli recalls she was staying at the Plaza Hotel and it was there the two reunited, Wyler having returned partially deaf after spending hours in a bomber making a documentary about the war in the air.
Clearly, he was a remarkable man, and a dedicated artist, yet one down-to-earth enough to admit he took on the assignment of the 1959 "Ben-Hur" remake partly in the hope that it would make "a lot of money." It did, and it also earned 11 Oscars, including one for the director.
People like William Wyler threaten to give Hollywood a good name.
"Directed by William Wyler" was directed by Aviva Slesin, although the guiding hand behind the film was probably that of Catherine Wyler, the executive producer and Wyler's daughter. She did her old man proud. Slesin saw to it that not a moment was wasted and in fact, if anything, the picture seems too short. It's the best film about an American cinematic auteur since "A Filmmaker's Journey," George Stevens Jr.'s moving biography of his director-father.
You can feel the love that went into "Directed by William Wyler," and well before the end of the film, you share it.