Monday, 26 May 2014

Gordon Willis: Godfather cinematographer dies aged 82

Gordon Willis, the legendary director of photography for films including The Godfather (1972) and its sequels, Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and one of the most influential cinematographers in history, has died aged 82.

Willis was born in New York, where his father worked as a make-up man for Warner Bros in Brooklyn. Initially, the movie loving Willis dreamed of acting, but gradually he became more interested in lighting, stage design and photography. Gofer work gave him an initial grasp of the industry before he was called into the Army during the Korean War. There, he managed to get assigned to the Air Force Photographic and Charting Service, and spent his four-year term learning everything he could about filmmaking.

After leaving the Army, he got a job as an assistant cameraman and worked his way up to first cameraman, through advertisements and documentaries – with the latter in particular affecting his mature style as a director of photography, where he saw his job as to eliminate, as opposed to adding. This approach earned him the nickname 'Prince Of Darkness' from his friend and fellow DP Conrad Hall – something that Willis did not entirely embrace, preferring to term it 'visual relativity' and emphasise the changes from light to dark. Screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) Tweeted, "No one did more with less," which is a fair summation of Willis' style.

In 1969, Aram Avakian hired Willis to work on End Of The Road (1970), his first film. Within a year he shot Klute (1971) for Alan J. Pakula, and went on to define 1970s cinema with a stunning run that included The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part 2 (1974), The Parallax View (1974), All The President's Men (1976), Annie Hall and Manhattan.

Willis continued working into the 1980s and 1990s, even trying to direct himself in 1980 with Windows, a sort of psychosexual thriller starring Talia Shire. However, the experience was not an entirely happy one, with Willis realising that he rather enjoyed having a certain distance from the production.

There were further Woody Allen contributions too – Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985) – as well as a reunion with Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather: Part III (1990) and with Pakula on Presumed Innocent (1990) and The Devil's Own (1997). The latter was, however, his last film and Willis retired shortly after. He was awarded an honourary Oscar for his lifetime achievement in 2010 – which is some compensation for the fact that he wasn't even nominated during that incredible run of work in the 1970s (he did receive two nominations later, for Zelig and The Godfather: Part III).

"This is a momentous loss," confirmed ASC President Richard Crudo. "He was one of the giants who absolutely changed the way movies looked. Up until the time of The Godfather 1 and 2, nothing previously shot looked that way. He changed the way films looked and the way people looked at films."

US author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted: "America's greatest cinematographer GORDON WILLIS: RIP."

Girls writer and actress Lena Dunham wrote: "May we always view the world as if through his lens."

Our thoughts go out to his friends and family. He will be missed.

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