June 26, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
William Wyler’s Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday. 1953. USA. Directed by William Wyler

These notes accompany the screenings of William Wyler’s Roman Holiday on June 27, 28, and 29.

How one relates to William Wyler (1902–1981) goes a long way toward delineating how one relates to the auteur theory. To the Hollywood establishment, Wyler was one of the most honored and esteemed directors. He received three Oscars for films that in retrospect seem less than extraordinary: Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben Hur (1959). If that wasn’t enough, the Motion Picture Academy also gave him their humanitarian Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1965, and the American Film Institute presented him with their Lifetime Achievement award in 1976.

From humble beginnings (directing over two dozen silent Western quickies at Universal), Wyler had graduated in sound’s first decade to directing such major stars as Walter Huston, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, and Gary Cooper. To these he would soon add Greer Garson, Olivia De Havilland, Charlton Heston, and Barbra Streisand, among many others. In fact, it is hard to find an actor who didn’t love him and speak of him in respectful and affectionate terms, even though Wyler was meticulous in what Charles Affron has called, “his tireless search for the perfect shot.” One can’t imagine a performer referring to Wyler, as Henry Fonda (who worked for Wyler on Jezebel) did, without prompting, in calling John Ford—for whom he gave his greatest performances—“a perverse Irish son-of-a-bitch genius.” Wyler’s own visual “genius,” as heralded by the great French critic Andre Bazin, seems now more a product of his prescient collaboration with the superb cinematographer Gregg Toland on several films. (Citizen Kane aside, Toland also did his best work with Ford.)

The production history of How Green Was My Valley (1941) at Twentieth Century-Fox tells us a great deal about the differences between Wyler, the intended director, and Ford, who ultimately made the film. For multiple reasons Wyler had left the project and moved on to the Bette Davis/Lillian Hellman vehicle The Little Foxes, taking Gregg Toland with him. Producer Darryl Zanuck loved Philip Dunne’s script for How Green Was My Valley, but the Fox money people had believed Wyler’s reputation for slowness would prove too costly, and Ford was brought in to salvage the project. Dunne, who later wrote speeches for President Kennedy, felt Ford’s film was too “corny,” even though the film’s emotional quality helped it at the box office. Although Ford had contributed little to the script, he wound up considering the film highly personal, almost autobiographical, and it is hard to disagree. The “corniness,” the emotional intensity, that Ford brought to it calls attention to the primary problem with William Wyler: ultimately, he doesn’t seem to care very much, suffering from what Andrew Sarris has called “a lack of feeling.”

Roman Holiday. 1953. USA. Directed by William Wyler

Traces of Wyler’s indifference can be found in the diversity of his subject matter, but even he could not prevent the radiant new talent of Audrey Hepburn from winning an Oscar for Roman Holiday, her first significant role. Wyler himself, freed from studio comforts and constraints, seemed more trusting, more willing to rely on imperfect shots when he had the glories of Rome and Ms. Hepburn to photograph. Postwar Italian cinema had been largely defined by less-than-gorgeous Neorealism at this pre-Fellini-decadence point. Roman Holiday did something for the Eternal City similar to what Alfred Hitchcock did for the Riviera in To Catch a Thief (which we will be screening in August). Wyler can be forgiven many boring, overrated films for discovering the future Holly Golightly, Eliza Doolittle, and a host of others. Hepburn, with her fragile beauty and poignant vulnerability, was like nobody else who had come along since the days of Lillian Gish. Billy Wilder, who was to cast Hepburn in Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon, commented glibly on her charms: “This girl…may make bosoms a thing of the past.”


Last Wednesday, June 20, Andrew Sarris died at 83. Andy was the father of the “auteur theory” in America, and this series is dedicated to him and his enormous contribution to film. A commemorative event (for which more information will be forthcoming) is being planned for the evening of September 19. Although Sarris classified Wyler as “less than meets the eye,” he showed admiration for Roman Holiday, which he found “genuinely poignant…. The serious moments are handled with breathtaking gravity and insight. Rome at its most festive doesn’t hurt either.” We are fortunate that Andy left us so much and made such an indelible mark in making sense of the history of the art form.