Last month, during a visit to the Criterion offices, Oscar-winning writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, Manchester by the Sea) sat down with us to talk about a filmmaker whose work has long captivated and inspired him, the legendary William Wyler, ten of whose classics are now streaming on the Criterion Channel . The following text grew out of that conversation.
William Wyler directed some of the greatest Hollywood movies of the twentieth century. He had his own way of doing things, and he was allowed to have his way on big productions because he made hits. His movies are unique both in how they are shot and in how closely the stories and characters are observed. There is an emotional depth and solidity to his work that you just don’t find everywhere else. From the domestic conflict of Dodsworth (1936) to the epic spectacle Ben-Hur (1959) and the extraordinary work in between, his films are so varied and so cinematic: beautiful-looking, dramatic, romantic, funny, and, above all else, intensely moving.
The first Wyler movie I remember watching is Wuthering Heights (1939), which I saw when I was pretty young. Obviously, when you see a movie as a kid your impressions are very different from those you have as an adult, and the main things I remember from watching Wuthering Heights for the first time are Laurence Olivier’s cocked eyebrows, and how handsome he was in profile. That, and how incredibly mean the characters were to each other; how tempestuous and willful and stormy they were. When I rewatched the film years later, my friend Patsy Broderick pointed out the light gleaming off Merle Oberon’s front tooth in her death scene. She said, “That tooth makes the whole scene.” And so it does. But between Olivier’s raised eyebrows and Merle Oberon’s gleaming tooth, it’s quite a movie.
“When I first saw Dodsworth, I was already on intimate terms with two-thirds of the movies that would mean the most to me, so there was the additional thrill of knowing I had a new jewel in my mental treasure chest.”
“Wyler makes the shot of the door itself enough to bring tears to your eyes.”
“I remember hearing or reading of Bette Davis and David Niven saying what torture it was to work for Wyler, and how they’d do anything for him anytime. Which you can well believe.”
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