Director of such classics as The Letter (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949) and Ben Hur (1959), William Wyler was known for his penchant for retakes. Actors mockingly called him "once more Wyler", "40-take Wyler" or even "90-take Wyler". Always looking for the perfect shot and determined to bring out the best in his actors, Wyler had them repeat the same lines, make the same movements or gestures through numerous retakes. His theory was that after a large number of takes actors would become so irritated and exasperated that they would no longer "act" but give the natural performance he was looking for.
|William Wyler and Bette Davis on the set of Jezebel|
Bette Davis did some of her best work with Wyler. Their first film together was Jezebel (1938), followed by The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941). Bette said that prior to working with Wyler she had never done more than two takes in a film. On Jezebel's first day of shooting, however, Wyler let her do as much as forty-five takes. In her first scene with the riding crop, the director felt that Bette's gestures were too theatrical and then made her repeat the scene over and over again until she dropped her mannerisms and gave him the shot he wanted. While his directing style often drove Bette and other actors to exasperation as well as exhaustion, Wyler ultimately got the best performances out of them. Bette won her second Oscar for Jezebel and later gave the director full credit: "It was all Wyler. I had known all the horrors of no direction and bad direction. I now knew what a great director was and what he could mean to an actress".
Wyler watches as Henry Fonda and Bette Davis play a scene in Jezebel
During the filming of Jezebel, it was not only Bette Davis but also leading man Henry Fonda who was forced by Wyler to do numerous retakes (of one scene even forty). A few weeks into production, Fonda's retakes caught the attention of producer Hal Wallis who was worried about going over schedule and over budget. Wallis wondered whether Wyler held a grudge against Fonda over Margaret Sullavan —both men had been married to the actress— and if that was the reason why he made Fonda do so many takes. About the subject Wallis sent a memo to associate producer Henry Blanke in early November 1937. (Actually Fonda and Wyler liked each other and became friends.) A few months later, the producer sent Blanke another memo, seeing that Wyler had not changed his ways and was still shooting multiple takes.
DATE: November 4, 1937
Do you think Wyler is mad at Henry Fonda or something because of their past? It seems that he is not content to okay anything with Fonda until it has been done ten or eleven takes. After all, they have been divorced from the same girl, and by-gones should be by-gones. I wonder if he wouldn't be satisfied to okay a fourth take or a fifth take occasionally. I am sure Fonda is a good actor, and I think if we will try printing up an occasional third or fourth take, after Wyler has okayed a tenth or an eleventh take, you will find that the third or fourth is just as good.
Possibly Wyler likes to see these big numbers on the slate, and maybe we could arrange to have them start with number "6" on each take, then it wouldn't take so long to get up to nine or ten. Will you please talk to Wyler and see if you can influence him a little on this score.
DATE: January 8, 1938
In spite of hell and high water and everything else, Wyler is still up to his old tricks. In last night's dailies, he had two takes printed of the scene where Donald Crisp leaves the house and Davis comes down the stairs and finds out that Pres [Henry Fonda] is coming. The first one was excellent, yet he took it sixteen times.
Doesn't this man know that we have closeups to break up a scene of this kind, and with all of the care he used in making the closeups, certainly he must expect that we would use the greater portion of the scene in closeup. Yet, he takes the time to make sixteen takes of a long shot. What the hell is the matter with him anyhow — is he absolutely daffy? Is he on the level when he says he is going to speed up and try to get through? If he is, this is a poor indication of it. Will you please tell him I said so.
While the Daily Production Reports showed that there had been an attempt to speed up production, by then the film was already going over budget. Wallis consequently threatened to fire Wyler and bring in William Dieterle to replace him. Bette, who had started an affair with Wyler, wouldn't stand for it and went to studio boss Jack Warner, pleading to let Wyler stay on. She promised to work late every night and start again early in the morning, whatever it took to finish the picture. Warner let Wyler stay but the director wouldn't work any faster and Jezebel eventually went 28 days over its original 42-day schedule. As said, Bette won an Oscar for her performance, and Fay Bainter also won the statuette for Best Supporting Actress. The film itself ended up being both a critical and commercial success.
Although Wyler didn't receive an Oscar nomination for his direction in Jezebel, he is still the most nominated director in Oscar history with twelve nominations. He ultimately won three Oscars, i.e. for Mrs Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben Hur (1959). Also, under Wyler's direction more actors received Oscar nominations for their performances than with any other director in history, i.e. thirty-six. Fourteen of them actually won the Oscar, which is also a record (among them Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953), Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949) and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968)). Needless to say, those retakes really paid off!
|Bette, Henry and Willy while filming Jezebel|