The title of Gabriel Miller’s book is a bit of a misnomer; instead of presenting a straightforward biography on the director and his works, Miller focuses on emphasizing various tropes, themes, and motifs the director returned to again and again in all his work, turning this into an overview of the director through filmic analysis as opposed to a straightforward biography.
If you know everything about William Wyler than Miller’s books is for you. He touches on where the director was at various points of his life, and why he made certain movies when he did; he decided to make Roman Holiday as a way of escaping the ever increasing arm of the HUAC. Unfortunately, if you lack knowledge on Wyler at all, or what an exploration of his personal life, seek another book. After realizing Miller’s intentions, I was surprised to learn about Wyler, the filmmaker. Miller’s book is like taking a lengthy film class in all things William Wyler, and it proves the point that Wyler should be considered an auteur on par with Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. Wyler created movies in every genre and yet you can easily suss out the “Wyler touch” whenever you watch one.
In lieu of biography Miller explores Wyler’s intentions through camera composition, lighting, and character placement. He goes over almost every movie in Wyler’s filmography with a fine-tooth comb breaking down how shifts in character seating implies a changing power dynamic. Other elements, like what happens when a character goes down versus up a staircase, transform the entire tone of the work. I was surprised to see Miller devote only a page or so to each of Wyler’s pairings with Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday and How to Steal a Million). Considering the statement that Wyler was so happy teaming up with Hepburn again, apparently the films aren’t worth exploring; How to Steal a Million garners a few paragraphs.
At over 400 pages the reiteration of “frame within a frame” and “triangle placement” can feel repetitious and tiring. If you haven’t watched a particular film the discussion on shifting dynamics and such fail to inspire much because there’s no foundation in the reader’s mind. If anything, the best way to read Miller’s work is to pick chapters where you’ve watched the movies and read those.
There is a lot to enjoy in William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director. Wyler deserves all the accolades out there and he’s created such a large and diverse amount of classic films. Miller’s book skimps on the life portion, but the films are front and center and minutely analyzed for every time of filmic significance. If you want a crash course in Wyler, from a filmmaking standpoint, pick up a copy.
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