By most measurements, Robert Wise didn’t just succeed as a director—Robert Wise crushed it. He made West Side Story, which, if you adjust for inflation, made about half a billion dollars at the American box office. Then he made The Sound of Music. 2015 will mark the 50 year anniversary of that movie and many articles will doubtless come out to remind us just how gigantic that film was. Adjusted for inflation, it is still the third biggest movie of all time, behind only Gone With The Wind and Star Wars. Like those two films, it wasn’t just a blockbuster, it was a phenomenon. (Read Mark Harris’s wonderful book Pictures At The Revolution, which details how Hollywood basically bankrupted itself trying to duplicate the otherworldly success of The Sound of Music.) Wise walked away from 1965 with armloads of money and awards.
Afterwards, however, he floundered. He followed his monster success with movies that often felt bloated, self-important, and empty. Today, he’s more of a footnote than a legend. His stylistic impact on generations of subsequent filmmakers has been negligible, and there are few academic studies of his work. The Sound of Music has become a beloved classic sure, but it’s not remembered as Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music. It’s remembered as Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.
What all of this obscures, however, is that Robert Wise was a great director.
Not good. Not workmanlike. Not professional.