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R.I.P. Gordon Willis

May 20, 2014

I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was in high school (early-to-mid 1980’s), there was one day out of every year where, for reasons that were never quite clear to me, instead of classes, everyone gathered in an assembly room of some kind and watched a movie (it lasted for two periods). My sophomore year (can’t remember if it was the fall, which would have been ’83, or the spring, which would have been ’84), the movie in question was The Paper Chase. For those of you who have never seen it, it follows a law school student (Timothy Bottoms) as he attempts to make it through his first year at Harvard, specifically his contract law class and his professor (John Houseman, in an Oscar-winning performance). Since they were showing the film during my English class (among other classes), it was that teacher who told us about the film. Given that, it would be reasonable to assume she would tell us about the themes of the film, or the characters, or any other aspect one uses to analyze a piece of literature or drama. Instead, she told us to pay attention to the cinematography. Sure enough, whatever else you think of the film – I think it’s an okay film, not great – it is worth paying attention to how the film is shot, particularly, as my teacher pointed out, the classroom scenes. After the opening credits sequence, we see a closeup of Professor Kingsfield (Houseman) as he’s lecturing the students, and when director James Bridges cuts away to the other students as they try to answer his questions, they’re all shot in medium or long shots. As the film goes on, in subsequent classroom scenes, we see Kingsfield framed in medium or long shots, and the students, particularly James Hart (Bottoms) shot in close-up. This was a way of showing how Hart came to dominate the movie while Kingsfield became more of a supporting figure, but it also showed how Hart came to think he understood Kingsfield and could stay on his wavelength (which he was wrong about). In other words, it’s about taking a complex theme (a young person’s relationship with authority figures), and doing something simple to illustrate it, without being simplistic. This was the working philosophy of the cinematographer of that movie, Gordon Willis, who died yesterday at age 82, and one of the reasons why he was probably my favorite cinematographer of all time.

Willis grew up with the movies; his father (like his mother, he started out as a dancer) was a make-up man for Warner Brothers’ New York studios (Willis was born and raised in Astoria). Willis was a gofer on the sets of many of the movies his father worked on, and entertained the idea of being an actor before becoming more interested in lighting, stage design, and of course photography. During the Korean War, he enlisted in the Air Force and joined the motion picture unit of the Photographic and Charting Service. After the war, on the advice of a friend, he joined the east coast cinematographer union, and worked as an assistant cameraman for over a decade, gradually working his way up to first cameraman. In that time, Willis shot commercials, fashion shoots, and documentaries, and gradually honed what he came to view as both his style and his working method (in various interviews, he’s called himself a minimalist). In 1969, Aram Avakian, an editor-turned-director (he had edited Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, among other films), hired Willis as the DP of his directorial debut, End of the Road, and the rest is history. When the so-called second Golden Age of Cinema is discussed – which took place roughly between 1969 and 1975 – it’s mostly in terms of the actors and especially directors who pushed Hollywood films towards a more realistic take on the world. Cinematographers tend to get overlooked here, but they’re just as important to the equation. Not only were they, like the directors, reacting to the trends of foreign-language films of the 50’s and 60’s and reacting against the garish and overly bright lighting of the Hollywood films of that time period, but they were also coming up at a time when technological advances were allowing them to actually achieve the look of those (mostly) European films. Laszlo Kovacs, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond are just as important figures to the history of 70’s films and beyond as Coppola, Scorsese, De Niro et al. And, of course, Willis staked out his claim as one of the greats during this period as well. Take, for example, his second film, Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970), one of the most underrated films of the 70’s. As I mentioned in my post about it, in this tale of Brooks (George Segal), an unhappy commercial artist, Willis and director Irvin Kershner (with whom he’d reunite in the Barbara Streisand dramedy Up the Sandbox two years later) use a lot of long takes to let the emotion of each scene play out. I don’t mean, by the way, to disparage the showier editing and camerawork that many tales of the time, and today, use (it can be very effective when used right, as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, among other films, demonstrates), merely to show how a less-is-more approach can work just as well.

After two more underseen cult films – Hal Ashby’s directorial debut The Landlord, with Beau Bridges giving one of his best performances as the title character, and Alan Arkin’s adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders (I’ve not seen The People Next Door, which Willis also shot during this period) – Willis began one of his two most crucial film relationships, with director Alan J. Pakula. Klute (1971), as seen today, works better as character study than as a mystery; indeed, the title is a misnomer, as the film is more about Bree (Jane Fonda), a call girl who is indirectly tied to the film’s mystery, than the title character (Donald Sutherland), the small-town detective trying to solve it. Along with Fonda’s terrific performance (she deservedly won the first of her two Oscars for it), the best part of the movie, again, is Willis’ photography. Take, for example, the sequence where Klute first goes to Bree’s apartment, and she yells at him not only about the case he’s pursuing (trying to find a missing friend) but also for spying on her and one of her clients (an elderly man for whom she does nothing more than pretend she’s just back from a glamorous vacation). As befitting Willis’ nickname “The Prince of Darkness” (more on that later), the apartment isn’t well-lit (which makes sense, as someone who is watching money wouldn’t want to be wasting electricity), but more important, again, is how Willis and Pakula use long takes to let the emotions play out. And even though this is the scene where Bree undresses to try and get a rise out of Klute, and mocks him when he doesn’t take the bait (“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that”), Willis resists the urge for voyeurism, instead focusing on the faces of the actors, to get their reactions. I’ve also already written about Willis’ work with Pakula on The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), but again, it should be remembered Willis shot two of the most gripping thrillers of the 70’s without doing anything showy with the camera. A year after All the President’s Men, Willis began his other major film partnership in his career, with Woody Allen (other than Allen and Pakula, Willis’ most frequent collaborator was Bridges’, but with the exception of The Paper Chase, their work together wasn’t as distinguished). As Allen has recounted in several interviews, Willis came along for him at just the right time; not only was Allen getting more confident as a director (whereas he felt he would have been more intimidated by Willis if they had worked together from the beginning), but he was also ready to push himself to do material that wasn’t as oriented towards the gag, as his “earlier, funnier movies” such as Bananas and Sleeper were (also, fittingly, Allen hates the sunlight in both real life and on film). Annie Hall (1977) gets classified as a romantic comedy (and as one of the few comedies to ever win a Best Picture Oscar), and it certainly is one, but it’s also darker, both in its look and feel, than many of them are, and one of the reasons why it still holds up today. Visually, this is more gimmick-oriented than many films Willis shot – there’s an animated sequence where Alvy (Allen) imagines Annie (Diane Keaton) as the Wicked Witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and there’s a split-screen sequence where Alvy and Annie are each talking to their respective psychiatrists – but it fits perfectly within the stream-of-consciousness of the story. It was also where Willis introduced what would be one of his signature shots in an Allen movie, that of two characters starting in the background and then walking up to the foreground (it’s early in the movie, when Alvy is arguing with his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) over whether a remark Alvy heard was anti-Semitic or not), and Allen claimed he would often include that type of shot in subsequent films he directed as a tribute to Willis.

Whatever you think of Allen’s filmography during this period (which went from Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), their eighth and final film together) – and I’m mixed on his output – there’s no denying the visual brilliance of the work. Even Stardust Memories and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, two of my least favorite of his films (I find the former whiny and the latter simply isn’t funny), are feasts to the eye; in the former, the transitions between fantasy and “reality” are seamlessly done without calling attention to themselves (credit, of course, should also go to Allen’s frequent editor Susan E. Morse), while the latter, one of Willis’ rare countryside ventures, looks good without being overly pictorial. And on better films he did with Allen, Willis’ visual sense is even more pronounced. Zelig may be a one-joke movie on paper, but Willis and Allen’s ability to re-create old footage for their mockumentary about the title character (Allen) is realistic-looking without being self-congratulatory about it. Black-and-white might seem like an odd choice for Allen’s Runyon-esque Broadway Danny Rose, where Allen plays a third-rate talent agent, but it lends the film a melancholy that feels earned. And The Purple Rose of Cairo delineates perfectly the contrast between the dreary life of its heroine, put-upon Depression-era housewife Cecilia (Mia Farrow), and the movies she goes to see. Still, it’s Manhattan (1979), their third movie together, that remains their finest achievement together. As with Stardust Memories  and Broadway Danny Rose, it’s shot in black-and-white, and the nighttime images, particularly when Isaac (Allen) and Mary (Keaton) are walking around the city after spending an evening with her friends, are absolutely stunning. Yet again, they don’t overwhelm the story, which was always Willis’ first concern. Though Pakula and Allen were the directors Willis worked with most often (in interviewers, he said it’s because they were both easy to get along with, and both of them listened to what he had to say), it’s his work with Francis Ford Coppola that remains his finest accomplishment. The first two Godfather movies are two of my favorite movies of all time (Part II is my favorite), and as much as the writing, direction, performances, and editing (particularly of the baptism sequence in the first film), it’s Willis’ work that makes them both landmark achievements. Again, it has to do with his ability to do something very simple and make it powerful. Take, for example, the opening 15 minutes or so of the first film, which not only set up plot and character, but also how the Corleones present a public face with their wedding celebration while doing shady business inside with the meetings Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) takes. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world to illustrate this would be to have the wedding scenes brightly lit, while the interior scenes would use lower levels of lighting. Yet amazingly, Willis clashed with the studio on this, not only on the inside scenes (people wanted to know why you couldn’t see Brando’s eyes; Willis retorted it wasn’t always necessary) but on the outdoor ones (he overexposed them). The result, of course, makes you aware of the two-sided nature of the Corleone family, again without calling attention to it. In the second film, the contrasts between light and dark aren’t so pronounced, because Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is as cold in his business dealings as he is with his family, and again, that seems perfectly simple yet helps give the movie its power. The contrasts, rather, come between Michael’s scenes and those of the young Vito (Robert De Niro), and Willis’ use of yellow and sepia tones in these scenes helped set a standard for period pieces that followed.

Here’s the truly staggering thing about Willis’ work; he shot three Best Picture winners in the 70’s (the first two Godfather movies and Annie Hall) and another nominee (All the President’s Men), yet his work in those films and others wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. He would only receive two nominations in his career, for Zelig and the third Godfather movie, neither of which he’d win for; only in 2009 did he finally receive an Honorary Oscar. There has been much speculation as to why he was ignored. Was it because he was defiantly an east coast photographer rather than going Hollywood? (Willis intimated this at times) Was it because he was so critical of the way many other movies were shot (he was particularly harsh on what he called “dump-truck” directing, which was taking a close-up of various angles of a scene and letting the editor sort everything out)? Or was it his reputation as the “Prince of Darkness”? As I mentioned above with the first Godfather movie, Willis clashed with those who felt, as he put it, went with the attitude of, “you’ve got to be able to see it all at the drive-in” (which were still popular at the time) and felt anything where you couldn’t see the actor’s eyes was wrong (as William Goldman recounts in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, one of the jokes about The Drowning Pool, which Willis shot, was it was the only film Paul Newman did where you couldn’t tell if his eyes were blue or not). Whatever the reason, the fact Willis’ work was so often passed over is one of the major black marks on the Academy’s record. Like just about every great artist, Willis did have his limitations. While he was a master when it came to urban and suburban settings, he seemed lost when it came to the countryside, except for the village scenes in The Godfather Part II. To be sure, Willis’ cinematography wasn’t the primary reason I wasn’t a fan of two Westerns he shot, Robert Benton’s Bad Company and Pakula’s Comes a Horseman, but the lack of visual distinction in both films didn’t help. While I consider Richard Benjamin’s The Money Pit (a loose remake of Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House) a guilty pleasure, it’s true the slapstick sequences might have played better with a cinematographer more attuned to that sensibility.* The one film he directed, the 1980 psychological thriller Windows (which I’ve never seen) was roundly panned.  And again, there are plenty of directors whom I’m a fan of whose work is antithetical to Willis’ style, such as PTA, Malick and Scorsese. Still, there’s a reason why, in their Oscar acceptance speeches, Coppola (when he won Best Director for The Godfather Part II), Goldman (Best Adapted Screenplay for All the President’s Men), and Houseman (Best Supporting Actor for The Paper Chase) all singled out Willis for praise, and why cinematographers today continue to cite him as an influence (in both movies and TV). More than anyone else in his profession, he made the simple powerful.

*-I saw a bad print of Pennies From Heaven, Herbert Ross’ movie version of Dennis Potter’s miniseries, so I’m reserving judgment on that one. As for Willis’ later work, the best showcase of this is his fifth film with Pakula, an adaptation of the Scott Turow novel Presumed Innocent, where Willis is able to avoid the slickness that hampers most legal dramas.


From → Movies

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