Robert Wise was a film editor who had assembled Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” when he joined the forerunner of the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Directors Guild, while troubleshooting what became a demiclassic chamber piece about a lonely little girl, “The Curse of the Cat People.”
“You had to shoot B pictures fast in those days, and the director who started the picture, Gunther von Fritsch, couldn’t seem to understand that, so the producer, Val Lewton, put me on it and I finished the picture in 10 days,” Wise remembers.
The year was 1943, when specks on the globe called Guadalcanal and Tarawa became places of ominous importance, when Frank Sinatra crooned “You’ll Never Know” and Humphrey Bogart intoned “Here’s Looking at You, Kid.”
Fifty-eight years, 40 movies as a director and two DGA presidencies later, Wise is being honored with the guild’s Presidents Award at the 53rd annual DGA Awards dinner March 10 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. He is also officially retiring.
“I will be 87 in September, and it’s time to hang it up,” Wise says. “My wife and a few friends know. I might take on something in an executive producer capacity if someone needs me. But no more directing. I hope they remember me as a man who made some quite good pictures. I loved movies and dedicated my entire adult life to it.”
The award is given for leadership and extraordinary efforts in enhancing the welfare and image of the DGA and the industry. It is only given occasionally by a unanimous vote of the guild’s former and sitting presidents. Wise, prexy from 1971-1975, is only the second person to receive the honor, which was presented to George Sidney in 1998.
“It seems only fitting that Robert Wise, who has dedicated so much of his professional life to guild service, should receive this prestigious award for his leadership and extraordinary service to the guild and the industry,” says DGA president Jack Shea. “It will be with great pleasure that I join with past guild presidents (to honor him).”
The award will join a host of others collected by Wise through the years, including four Academy Awards for directing and producing “West Side Story” (1961) and “The Sound of Music” (1965), and the 1966 Irving G. Thalberg Award. Wise was president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences from 1985-87.
His previous DGA kudos include the Lifetime Achievement, Honorary Life Member and Robert B. Aldrich awards for extraordinary service to the guild and its members, and competitive honors for outstanding theatrical direction on “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.”
Wise’s hugely varied career varies from the gritty, social realism of such films as “The Set-Up” (1949), “Somebody up There Likes Me” (1956) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959), to sci-fi standouts “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) and “Star Trek — The Motion Picture” (1979), war pictures “The Desert Rats” (1953), “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958) and “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), the character drama “Two for the Seesaw” (1962), horror classic “The Haunting” (1963) and the disaster epic “The Hindenburg” (1975).
In a business that pigeonholes practically everyone, Wise has remained elusively uncategorized, and he takes pride in this. Wise’s friend Charles Champlin, arts editor emeritus of the Los Angeles Times and a DGA honorary life member, has said, “The extraordinary thing about Bob’s career is the incredibly wide variety of pictures, but you also must recognize that that career is unified by sterling craftsmanship.”
Of all of his DGA involvement, Wise is most proud of Special Projects, a series of ongoing screenings, seminars, festivals, retrospectives and other activities promoting film art and showcasing filmmakers. He resigned last year after 25 years as chairman of the Special Projects Committee; Jeremy Kagan succeeded him.
“The idea for Special Projects was Elia Kazan’s,” Wise says. “He initiated that in New York, because he felt that we should have something going on aside from the contract business — talk of hours and wages. And he was right.”