When the trustees of The American Film Institute established the Life Achievement Award in 1973, the specified that the choice of the yearly recipient be based on the total career contribution of a man or woman — regardless of place of birth — whose talent has fundamentally advanced the art of American film or television, and whose work has withstood the test of time.
The Trustees voted this year’s honor to William Wyler, who, during some fifty years as a director and a producer, has given the world’s filmgoers a remarkable number of noteworthy and well-nigh classic motion pictures. Mr. Wyler, born in Alsace, came to this country in 1920, and soon enough turned his talents to storytelling in the relatively new medium of movies. In a career marked by artistic sureness, high standards of taste, and uncompromising craftsmanship he has made films of lasting value with a frequency virtually unmatched by his contemporaries.
The titles alone of Wyler films tell a good part of the story: THE GOOD FAIRY, THESE THREE, DODSWORTH, DEAD END, JEZEBEL, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE WESTERNER, THE LETTER, THE LITTLE FOXES, MRS. MINIVER, MEMPHIS BELLE, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE HEIRESS, DETECTIVE STORY, CARRIE, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE DESPERATE HOURS, FRIENDLY PERSUASION, THE BIG COUNTRY, BEN-HUR, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, THE COLLECTOR, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION AND FUNNY GIRL.
A great director is more than a great craftsman. He can act as a formidable catalyst in weaving together the best efforts of talented collaborators. William Wyler’s career has involved associations with writers of the caliber of Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, Jessamyn West, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; cinematographers such as Gregg Toland, Franz Planer and Robert L. Surtees; starts of magnitude and persuasive personalities; and producers-most notably, his long association with Samuel Goldwyn. The horizons of the motion picture thereby become widened. The screen grows more forceful in its effects. Brilliant and memorable performances last long beyond their first season. It has been said of Wyler that he shortened the distance between the eye and the mind.
The AFI Life Achievement Award, honoring as it does the totality of a filmmaker’s contributions, began fittingly, I think — with the 1973 dinner and subsequent telecast that highlighted the splendid achievements of John Ford. It continued with the presentation of the award to James Cagney in 1974, and to Orson Welles in 1975. These tributes display the life work of individual filmmakers in a way which reveals the profound impact that a creator of films can have. It says something about the quality of film art that those thought suitable for the honor were many in number. How to choose from among the great who have devoted the best years of their lives to the enrichment of the screen? It was the collective judgment of the Trustees that, this year, the name of William Wyler led the rest.
Each year the telecast has reached a wide audience. This is one of the purposes of the Institute — to provide the public with the insight into the art of motion pictures — and focusing on the work of a single creator, we can demonstrate, by example, how high the film art can soar.
The annual AFI Life Achievement Award is also designed to reflect and to advance the purposes for which the American Film Institute was created: to preserve the film past, support research into the medium, provide assistance and training to new filmmakers, cooperate with film educators, and to publish materials that aid these and related activities. By honoring William Wyler and bringing renewed attention to his work, we of the Institute feel that our purposes are being well served.