Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wyler, Dodsworth and The Heiress - An Appreciation

Thinking back on the lists of Holllywood's greatest directors that pop up every now and again, one name that doesn't appear on enough of those lists is that of William Wyler.

On the one hand, it's amazing if you think about it. Just look at the man's filmography. Dodsworth. Jezebel. These Three. The Little Foxes. Mrs. Miniver. The Letter. The Heiress. The Big Country. The Best Years of Our Lives. Roman Holiday. The Children's Hour. Ben-Hur.  All, at the very least, superior films if not excellent. Even Funny Girl, which I'm not a great fan of (because I've never been a big Streisand freak), rates a B+.

On the other hand, I see why he gets overlooked. He's not a visual stylist like Alfred Hitchcock or Vincente Minnelli, nor was he a writer-director like Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, who carved out distinctive narrative voices for themselves. 

Which is not to say it's RIGHT that Wyler gets overlooked. I saw two films of his over the weekend that reaffirmed my belief that he deserves a place among Hollywood's greatest: Dodsworth and The Heiress.

Wyler's strength has always been directing actors.  He still holds the record for directing the most Oscar-nominated performances - an astounding 35. And 14 of those - also a record - won the Oscar.  One of those was Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress.

Time Warner Cable's ever-so-detailed plot summary described the film, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, thusly: "Fortune hunter pursues unattractive woman."

My first reaction was "On what planet is Olivia de Havilland supposed to be unattractive?"

Watching the film at first, I remained mystified. De Havilland was playing a spinster, to be sure, but in the early scenes, she didn't look unattractive to me at all - still quite pretty, if not exactly a glamor girl. I especially loved how she looked when Montgomery Clift was romancing her - her eyes - no, her whole being - lit up.

When her fortunes turn late in the film, though, the transformation is stunning. De Havilland becomes icy cold and austere.

No other director could have played that scene as effectively as Wyler, I believe.

The cast of the earlier Dodsworth is also stellar. Walter Huston (father of John) excels playing an automaker who retires and finds that he wasn't as close to his wife as he thought.

Wyler was never known for memorable shots. Ironically, I think his most visual film, Ben-Hur, is one of his less interesting movies, and the justly legendary chariot race was actually shot by someone else - second unit director Andrew Marton.

And yet Wyler had a way with subtle but striking shots. The opening of Dodsworth (seen in the clip below) starts with a slow push-in on Huston as he looks out the window of his auto plant, with the name DODSWORTH gradually becoming larger in the frame - suggesting how his name overshadows his personality.

Both films are excellent - and both prove that Wyler was one of the best storytellers we've ever had - in any medium.

Dodsworth: A (A slightly pat ending robs it of an A+)
The Heiress: A+

1 comment:

HollyGoKimsy said...

In college I took a class about the relationship between film and the written word. One of the works was "Washington Square" vs "The Heiress". Although I don't think the two are in synch necessarily, I do this her portrait is magnificent and I did enjoy it immensely.