William Wyler's career: a lesson in mythmaking

American Masters: Directed by William Wyler PBS, Monday, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings). Documentary directed and edited by Aviva Slesin. Laurence Olivier says he ``made me a good film actor....'' John Huston says he ``had a genius for getting the truth out of an actor.''

He was director William Wyler, one of the giants of Hollywood history, and to follow this program's outline of this great director's career is to take a history lesson in American mythmaking.

Wyler's 50-year record reached from silents to ``Funny Girl,'' earned him an awesome three directing Oscars, and had an impact on great stars so enduring that decades later they can recount vividly, for this program, lots of meaningful moments on the set. Film history, of course, is an ideal subject for a TV pop-cultural study like this. In addition to a narrative by Wyler himself, there is a flow of stories from screen legends like Bette Davis and Greer Garson. And since Wyler's films - ``Dodsworth,'' ``Jezebel,'' ``Wuthering Heights,'' ``Mrs. Miniver,'' ``The Best Years of Our Lives,'' and on and on - are an indelible part of America's tribal memory, clips from them make an unerringly relevant background as you move through the decades.

Production on the show began back in 1981, and it was five years before the last segments were completed. Tragically, three days later - in a timing suggestive of one of his own films - Wyler died. The program's careful composition and skillful mix of personal anecdote and artistic commentary have won it several awards at film festivals around the world. The stories are lively and telling - like Miss Davis recalling the squabble she had with Wyler over how one line in ``The Letter'' should be read, or Wyler telling how his own return from overseas during World War II was the basis for the memorable reunion of Fredric March and Myrna Loy in ``The Best Years of Our Lives.''

Since nearly every recollection here refers to some shared American experiences, it's like telling old family stories.

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