Robert Wise has been a powerful force in American movies for over six decades, first as editor of several of the cinema’s most enduring classics, then as producer and director of some of the best and most memorable films of all time. Wise has characterized himself as a journeyman filmmaker, the consummate professional, but his career has been marked with enormous critical and commercial success. Films as disparate as THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), THE SET-UP (1949), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), I WANT TO LIVE! (1958) and THE HAUNTING (1963) have taken their places as some of the seminal films in their respective genres. And in an industry which sometimes tends to put art and commerce in very different categories, Wise’s blockbuster classics like WEST SIDE STORY (1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) attracted millions of ticket buyers, garnered ecstatic reviews and were showered with awards, Academy and otherwise.
Wise got his start in the business as an editor, working on landmark films like OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934), THE INFORMER (1935), TOP HAT (1935, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) and, most notably, CITIZEN KANE (1941). Called in to re-edit Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), Wise was given his first opportunity to direct-uncredited-when the film needed a few bridging sequences. The result was, and remains, controversial, but Wise was on his way.
As a director, Wise cut his teeth with the esteemed Val Lewton company at RKO, where sensitive and intelligent horror films were created on very low budgets. There the fledgling director learned much about texture and mood, how to make an audience feel and react through suggestion, rather than through explicit effects. Later, as on of the top directors in the business, he paid tribute to those important formative years with THE HAUNTING about which, he has said, “You hear some things and don’t really see anything. I can’t tell how many people how many people said it was the scariest movie they’d ever seen, and it all came from Val and my days with him.”
Some critics have complained that Wise’s films seem to lack the kind of thematic unity that the film scholars treasure so highly. But there is no reason to believe that Wise considers this trait to be a fault: to him, the film is always more important than the assertion of the personality of the director. He is far more concerned with facing new challenges and creating new worlds than in spinning endless variations on a few obsessive themes.
In fact, his versatility seems nearly endless. Even after his great successes, when he was firmly established as a master filmmaker, Wise never submitted to the kinds of formulas that might insure great box office. Consider, for instance, his films of the Seventies: a taut, big-budget science fiction film , THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), was followed by an intimate love story, TWO PEOPLE (1973), which in turn led to a dazzling, special-effects-filled, multicharacter disaster film, THE HINDENBURG, (1975). Then it was on to the intelligent and underrated little horror film AUDREY ROSE (1977), which led to the megabudget STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). On the surface, no film in that list seems to resemble any of the others, in theme, technique, or point of view. They are joined only by the solid, creative professionalism of their construction and by the passion — and delight — that their director took in bringing new and different stories to the screen.
Wise’s two most popular and acclaimed (and profitable) films, WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, have thrilled, moved, and inspired audiences for over thirty years now, and their ability to do so has not dimmed a whit. The are “movie movies” of the highest order, yet they also reward the closest examination of their film technique: editing, cinematography, acting, direction.
To Robert Wise, this is as it should be. He has said he believes that there is no contradiction between a good movie artistically and a good movie commercially: “If you make it so personal that very few people go to see it, then you really haven’t punched over what you have to say. The potency of the theme of your film is only as good as the number of people who see it.”
Wise’s films have been potent indeed. He has excelled at every level of achievement in the movie business — successful in art, commerce and in passion. Great careers have been built on any one of these traits. By hitting them all, Robert Wise is uniquely deserving of the Life Achievement Award.