In 1976, William Wyler became the fourth recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, following John Ford, James Cagney and Orson Welles. The winner of three Best ... See full summary »
In 1976, William Wyler became the fourth recipient of the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, following John Ford, James Cagney and Orson Welles. The winner of three Best Director Academy Awards (and a record twelve nominations), Wyler has directed more Oscar-winning performances than any other director: Walter Brennan (twice), Bette Davis, Fay Bainter, Greer Garson, Teresa Wright, Fredric March, Harold Russell, Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Hepburn, Burl Ives, Charlton Heston, Hugh Griffith and Barbra Streisand. Among the film luminaries who pay tribute to Wyler are Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Myrna Loy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Charlton Heston, Eddie Albert, Merle Oberon, Walter Pidgeon, Greer Garson and Harold Russell. Film clips include: "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Roman Holiday," "Ben-Hur," "Mrs. Miniver," "Funny Girl," "Wuthering Heights," and "The Heiress." Conspicously absent from the tribute is Bette Davis ("Jezebel," "The Letter," "... Written by
William Wyler was the fourth recipient of the American Film Institute's annual lifetime achievement award. One of the purposes of the award is to generate income for AFI from the broadcasting rights to a televised edition of the AFI tribute ... so, the award is always given to someone whose name value is likely to generate high TV ratings. The first three recipients were John Ford, James Cagney and Orson Welles. Wyler seems an odd choice to be the next year's guest of honour (after Welles) because most filmgoers and TV audiences had never heard of him. Wyler's name on a movie simply doesn't embody a mystique in the way that 'a Hitchcock film' or 'a Capra film' or even 'a Preston Sturges film' does. (Hitchcock and Capra were later recipients of the AFI honour.)
In fact, William Wyler has directed more Oscar-winning performances than any other director, by a comfortable margin ... a record which is unlikely ever to be broken, now that the Hollywood studio system has ended. Wyler was beloved and respected within the industry, and his films were (and are) well-known and beloved by movie audiences, even if the average movie fan of today has no idea who he was.
As usual for the AFI tributes, this evening alternates between film clips from the work of the guest of honour, and testimonials by Hollywood celebrities whose name value will bring in some TV ratings. James Stewart gets a look-in, speaking about Wyler's career in general rather than about the one obscure movie which Stewart and Wyler made together ('Thunderbolt', a wartime propaganda film). Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn both give tributes to Wyler, and we see a clip from 'Roman Holiday': the scene in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, where Peck frightens Hepburn by pretending that La Bocca della Verità ('the Mouth of Truth') has bitten off his hand. This scene is a surprising choice to be shown out of context, especially for viewers who have never seen 'Roman Holiday' in its entirety: we have no advance notice that this movie is a romance or a comedy, so -- when Peck pretends that his hand has been bitten off -- the action is much more startling here than it is in the actual movie.
Talking of missing hands: the most moving testimonial of the night comes from Harold Russell, the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role. During the second World War, Russell was an Army sergeant whose hands were blown off whilst he was deactivating a dynamite charge. Wyler cast him in 'The Best Years of Our Lives' as the homecoming sailor who has lost both hands in action. Russell, with his prosthetic hooks gleaming in the spotlight, gives a heartfelt tribute to Wyler ... then adds some humour with a personal anecdote about an encounter with a woman who noticed that Russell resembled the hook-handed actor in this movie, and (failing to realise who he was) she suggested that he should watch the film as inspiration to overcome his own handicap!
Each AFI tribute ends with the guest of honour mounting the podium and saying a few words. I've observed that William Wyler's name doesn't carry the mystique that so many other directors' names do. One reason for this may well be that Wyler (unlike Hitchcock, Capra, Ford, Welles, Preminger, Truffaut and so many others) was a genuinely modest and self-effacing man. When Wyler was signed to direct the 1959 remake of 'Ben-Hur', MGM's publicity department blared that Wyler had been an assistant director on the 1925 silent version ... until Wyler modestly pointed out that his duties on that earlier film (with 'assistant director' as his official title) had merely been crowd control.
Wyler continues that modesty here. He tells the story of how he broke into the film business: with no previous movie experience, he walked into the office of Carl Laemmle (head of production at Universal) and demanded a prestigious job. Laemmle was so impressed with this young man (claims Wyler) that he was hired straight away as a director. The punchline has Wyler saying: 'Thank you, Uncle Carl'.
Laemmle was notorious for padding the payroll of Universal Studios with his relations and in-laws, to the extent that he was nicknamed 'Uncle Carl' ... leading Ogden Nash to compose his couplet:
"Uncle Carl Laemmle had a very large faemmle."
In Wyler's case, that nepotism turned out to be a good thing. William Wyler has made many wonderful films, and his AFI award is well-deserved. 10 out of 10!
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