Sunday, September 23, 2007

An Interview With Judy Wyler Sheldon


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André Bazin once called him "the consummate artist". James Agee said he was "one of the great ones." He was William Wyler, and this weekend has seen a confluence of celebrations, re-evaluations, and analysis of the work of this director, in the form of the William Wyler Blog-A-Thon hosted by Mike "Goatdog" Phillips.

William Wyler and Margaret Tallichet ("Talli"), his wife, named their first two children after characters in his films. The eldest daughter Catherine was, like a great many girls born in 1939, named after Merle Oberon's character in Wuthering Heights. She would executive-produce a documentary on her father called Directed By William Wyler, built around the last interview he ever gave, three days before his death in 1981.

The second Wyler daughter was born just before the 1942 release of Mrs. Miniver, and was named Judy after the on-screen daughter of Greer Garson's title character, who was played by child actor Clare Sanders in the film. Now, under her married name Judy Wyler Sheldon, she is the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, an organization that I volunteer for. To contribute to this Blog-a-Thon, I thought it might be fun to interview a Wyler family member. Indeed, it was a delight to experience Judy's warm humor over the phone, and to hear her share a few reminiscences about a man who, as David Cairns succinctly put it, was "interested in human experience in its entirety." Here is my transcription of the conversation:

Hell on Frisco Bay: Though we've never met, I've seen you on the stage at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. How did you become interested in silent films?

Judy Wyler Sheldon: I really was neither interested, nor did I know a thing about them until my siblings and I were invited to go to the festival in Italy - the other big silent film festival, called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, which takes place in Pordenone every year up in the Friuli area of Italy. They were doing a retrospective of my father's silent films in '95, '96, something like that, and they wanted us to come over. I have two sisters and a brother, and we thought, "Oh! Film festival? Italy? Why not!" We were thinking it was going to be like Cannes or Venice: what are we going to wear, what jewels should we take...

HoFB: I hear it's a pretty down-to-Earth festival.

JWS: It's VERY down-to-Earth. Everybody was in blue jeans. So we went to the festival and had a wonderful time. I saw my father's silent films for the first time. He never talked about his silent films. He just considered that part of his schooling. We saw not only his but a lot of other people's silent films. It was a week-long festival. When I got back, I was talking about it, and a friend of mine said "Well you know San Francisco has a silent film festival. It's pretty young, and you should find out about it." I did, and I got involved a couple of years later, joined the board, and now I'm the president of the board. So that's how it came about, but until then I really didn't know anything about silent films. And of course seeing my father's films... you know he started very young. At Pordenone they showed the films that they had chronologically. They started with those two-reel Westerns, which we thought were perfectly horrible. I remember sitting in the theatre with my siblings and we're kind of elbowing each other as we saw one film after another, all kind of the same plots, terrible camera-work, and wondering "what are we going to say?" We knew we were going to be interviewed, and answer questions. Fortunately as he got a little more experienced they did get better, so the last few that they showed were okay.

HoFB: I think William Wyler is probably best-known today for all the Oscars and Oscar nominations his films were awarded. Did you watch the Oscar ceremony growing up?

JWS: Well, I don't so much remember watching them on television, but I did go to the Oscars a couple of times. I went the year that he was nominated for Roman Holiday but didn't win, and I went the year that he did win for Ben-Hur. Those were really exciting. Although it was embarrassing, as they'd always send a limo to take you to the Oscars. You'd collect into this long line of limos going to (wherever the Oscars were being held in those years), and there'd be fans there lining up to see the stars getting out of their limos. They'd come and look through the windows, which weren't smoked in those days. They'd peer in and they'd say "Oh, that's nobody," because my father wasn't recognizable except to a few people in the know. I just remember finding that so humiliating, that they'd dismiss us with "Oh, that's nobody" and go on to the next car trying to find some big movie star.

HoFB: I believe Roman Holiday is one of at least two of your father's films in which you can be seen in an on-screen role. Is that correct?

JWS: Right. There are only two, and the first one, which is the Best Years of Our Lives, I'm in for about three seconds in a scene in the drugstore. There are lots of clients in the drugstore, just sort of in the background, and I'm a child of five or so, with my sister.

HoFB: Is there any way we can recognize you if we play the DVD?

JWS: Gosh... I'm just a little girl in a dress, with my sister, who's three years older than I am. It's just fleeting, and I can't even remember which scene it is. It's obviously one of the scenes with Dana Andrews.

HoFB: I recently looked at those scenes and I think I spied a pair of little girls looking at him in the very first scene where he visits the store.

JWS: It could be that one. I'd have to go back and look myself, but it's really fast. In Roman Holiday I got a little bit more of a chance. It was maybe five seconds more (laughs) and I actually was supposed to mumble "don't take my camera," because I was wearing a camera and Gregory Peck wanted to take pictures of Audrey Hepburn getting her hair cut. His photographer friend Eddie Albert wasn't with him, so he goes out and sees a group of schoolgirls at the Trevi Fountain. He comes up to me and tries to take the camera from around my neck and I'm saying, "Don't take my camera." My sister, who was in the scene as another schoolgirl, calls the teacher. She says, "Oh, Miss Weber" and the teacher comes over and glares at him. We have a younger brother and sister who say that we did such a bad job in that scene that, as a result, none of us were ever asked to appear again in a movie. And my younger brother and sister were never in a movie. They blamed us completely!

HoFB: I read somewhere that there was an attempt to get them into Ben-Hur...

JWS: I don't remember that there was ever any attempt to get them in. They did both have these very elaborate costumes made for them by the costume department at Cinecittà. They were wonderful costumes. My brother and sister were six and eight. My brother had this wonderful Roman soldier costume made for him, with a helmet, you know, and the whole thing was just fantastic. My sister had a woman's kind of toga. The Roman soldier costume has passed around our family, and my two sons both wore it as a Halloween costume.

HoFB: Roman Holiday was notable for being shot on the streets of Rome, helping to take Hollywood out of a studio-bound mindset. Did you enjoy life on location with your family there?

JWS: Oh, yeah. Although I was in school in Switzerland for most of the time. I was in Rome during the summer, when he was first shooting the film. It was a lot of fun, and my father had lots of fun making that movie. It was the first movie he made in Europe on location, and I guess it was the first big Hollywood movie that had been made in Rome. I remember my parents saying how the city authorities leaned over backwards to make it easy for them to film there, closing off streets and all the stuff that's much harder to get done today. My father had just the most wonderful time, and my mother as well, living there while making this movie. They just had the best time, and my father ended up buying... well, I don't know if he bought it or if it was given to him... a Vespa, like Gregory Peck had in Roman Holiday . He careened around and then brought it back to the States with him. We were living in Beverly Hills when he had it. We had a weekend house in Palm Springs, and that's where he took it, and we have lots of home movies of the whole family piled on this Vespa: my father, my mother, the four of us. We even have one with the dog!

HoFB: I'd like to go back to the Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just a tremendous film. One of the very best of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. That film, and your father's direction in particular, have been praised as unusually sensitive in portraying a character who lost his hands in World War II. Your father lost most of his hearing in an accident while shooting documentaries of the war in Europe. Was his deafness something that was publicly known at the time?

JWS: It wasn't something that he was trying to keep a secret. He was deaf in one ear. He could hear in the other ear, so he wasn't totally deaf. He did come back from the war with that injury wondering if he'd ever be able to direct, because at first it was much more serious. I think that did give him a lot of empathy with the character you mentioned. And also just the experience of coming back and having to adjust to their old lives, or new lives. I think that made it very personal.

HoFB: Is it a coincidence that the Silent Film Festival uses American Sign Language interpreters for all the film introductions and q-and-a's? Was that policy something you brought to the festival?

JWS: No, no. That was not something I had anything to do with. In fact, I think it predated my being part of the festival. But it's such a natural for our audience because, I would guess, silent films could be very attractive to people who are hearing-impaired.

HoFB: In 2002 the festival brought the silent version of a William Wyler film called Hell's Heroes.

JWS: Yes, and that was the centennial of my father's birth, which is why they chose that one. And actually the year that I went to Pordenone for the first time with my siblings, they showed that.

HoFB: What was it like to bring Hell's Heroes to the Castro screen, and to the Silent Film Festival audience?

JWS: Well, it was wonderful, naturally. To get to see these films on a big screen with live music in an old movie palace. I mean, as you know, there's nothing like it! It was thrilling, and that year we were able to get Terrence Stamp to introduce the film. Obviously, he wasn't a silent film actor, but it's harder and harder to find any of those these days! It was wonderful to have him give some reminiscences about working with my father on the Collector. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. Most of my siblings were there, and other family, and of course my kids were there, and my husband, and it was just great.

HoFB: Do you often watch your father's films?

JWS: I watch them from time to time. I have DVDs of most of them, the ones that are available. But there's just nothing like seeing a movie on a big screen. I have to say I much prefer seeing a film in a theatre, if it's possible. Of course, that's not always possible.

HoFB: Hopefully somebody will put together a full retrospective of his films one of these days!

JWS: Wouldn't that be nice? We'd love that! When I say "we" I mean the family. We would encourage that, and support that, and work for that in any way we could. That would be great!

HoFB: Is there anything else you think film buffs might like to know about your father?

JWS: Well, he was my father, so I'm biased, but growing up, I never thought that much about the fact that I was the daughter of this well-known film director. It's only in my adulthood that I've begun to appreciate what he brought to the craft. But as a human being, he was a really wonderful guy. He was not only interesting, he was funny, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was a humanitarian, and cared very deeply about all kinds of causes, and was just a great person. I feel very proud to have had him for my father.

HoFB: Well, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me, and with the readers of this Blog-a-Thon!

JWS: You're very welcome!