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Unknown facts about five great Hollywood directors

Today, 11 May, marks the anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. It wouldn’t be until 1928 until the award selection and nomination process was established, but this elite group of actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers were leaders in the early film industry.

As a throwback to old Hollywood, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite American classic film directors from the American National Biography who have been recognized by the Academy as iconic. Whose style is your favorite?

Billy Wilder


Described as: “Witty, with a devilish sense of humor.” It has been said of Wilder films that audiences are never allowed to believe that all will be well ever after; they are presented with flawed people who will continue to struggle.

Best known for: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960)

Most underrated movie: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) a suspense thriller that pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock

You may be surprised to learn that: “In his 20s, Wilder wrote numerous scenarios for Berlin’s silent-film industry, and his skill at dancing landed him a stint as a hired dance partner for older women. Wilder made the most of his years in Berlin, seeking out the company of prominent writers and artists like Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz, Fritz Lang, Hermann Hesse, and Erich Maria Remarque, whom he saw daily at a celebrated bohemian hangout, the Romanisches Café.”

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 8

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 2

Studio publicity photo of Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson, circa 1950. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Studio publicity photo of Billy Wilder and Gloria Swanson, circa 1950. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


John Ford


Described as: An artist. As John Wayne said “When he pointed that camera, he was painting with it.” Ford’s films were characterized by a strong artistic vision and frequently contained panoramas of magnificent outdoor settings that rendered the human actors almost insignificant.

Best known for: Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956)

Most underrated movie: They Were Expendable (1945)

You may be surprised to learn that: “Throughout his career Ford tended to work with the same group of people again and again, as actors, writers, stagehands, and cameramen. He was known for his non-ostentatious dress, and he frequently had both a drink and a cigar with him on the set. He wore a black patch over one eye, which had been injured in an accident during the 1940s.”

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 5

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 4

Director John Ford, who was also a Rear Admiral in the Navy Reserve, 1952. US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Director John Ford, who was also a Rear Admiral in the Navy Reserve, 1952. US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Frank Capra


Described as: “Hollywood’s most sought-after director of the 1930s.” He is cited as establishing the screwball comedy as a genre, though his subsequent films, focused on more serious social or historical issues, and revolved around a formula: “an honest and idealistic hero encounters problems from corrupt men and institutions but ultimately prevails.”

Best known for: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)

Most underrated movie: Meet John Doe (1941)—produced with an independent filmmaker, after a dispute with the Hollywood studios about directors having artistic control over their work

You may be surprised to learn that: The Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life was Capra’s personal favorite, although it was initially unpopular with both critics and the public.

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 6

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 3

Frank Capra cuts Army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II, circa 1943. US Army. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Frank Capra cuts Army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II, circa 1943. US Army. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


William Wyler


Described as: “Having a sympathetic approach to performance and an ability to create focused, dramatic moments.” He was praised for his careful handling of potentially incendiary themes and characters.

Best known for: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959) Funny Girl (1968)

Most underrated movie: The Children’s Hour (1961)

You may be surprised to learn that: With the United States in WWII in 1942, Wyler volunteered to make films for the armed forces. As an army major (later, lieutenant colonel), he produced two 16mm color films under combat conditions, serving as one of his own cinematographers (he ended the war permanently deaf in one ear as a result). The more notable of the two, Memphis Belle (1944), documented a B-17 bomber’s twenty-fifth and final mission over Germany

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 12

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 3

Movie poster for The Heiress (1949). CC BY 2.0 via Nesster Flickr.

Movie poster for The Heiress (1949). CC BY 2.0 via Nesster Flickr.


Robert Altman


Described as: “Idiosyncratic” and “iconoclastic”. His directorial style is known for its episodic storytelling, overlapping dialogue, and frequent improvisation.

Best known for: M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975) and, more recently, The Player (1992)

Most underrated movie: Gosford Park (2001)

You may be surprised to learn that: The mellowness of A Prairie Home Companion may have reflected Altman’s recognition and final acceptance of mortality. Already suffering from cancer at the time of its release, he had been in precarious health since undergoing a heart transplant a decade earlier

Oscar Nominations for Best Director: 5

Oscar Wins for Best Director: 0 (But M*A*S*H was recognized for best screenplay)

Publicity photo of Robert Altman, AP News, 1983. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Publicity photo of Robert Altman, AP News, 1983. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Discover the lives of more than 18,700 men and women – from all eras and walks of life – who have influenced American history and culture in the acclaimed American National Biography Online. To supplement the thousands of biographies, many of which feature an image or illustration, Oxford is proud to announce a partnership with the Smithsonian that makes nearly 100 portraits from the National Portrait Gallery available to ANB users.

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