Best known for shooting the “Godfather” trilogy and numerous Woody Allen films, the cinematographer Gordon Willis has died at 82. Reasons at this time remain unknown.
Willis, born in Astoria, New York, never won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, but he didn’t have to. His artistry was apparent to anyone, even those who don’t notice photography in movies. (He won an honorary Oscar in 2009.) His work was painterly, specifically reminiscent of the Dutch school of harsh shadows and warm lights. He made films look like moving paintings. In the terrific cinematography documentary “Visions of Light,” he even compared himself to Rembrandt. Thing is, he earned it.
His main talent was darkness that played with warm yellows and browns. This is most ostentatiously (in a great way) on display in “The Godfather” films. In the first film, he made a point of lighting Marlon Brando so that you never saw his eyes:
We recently talked to Robert Duvall, who played mafia family consigliere Tom Hagen. He made the claim that Brando’s performance was too much like a “kindly uncle.” That might be so, especially if you’re seeing him do the performance on-set. But the way Willis lights him obscures that, making him seem unknowable — a man who comes off as warm, or at least aloof, but who has done, and could do, unthinkable acts. This is a case where cinematography actually changes a performance, making it seem deeper than it perhaps was at the time cameras were rolling.
Willis could effortlessly repeat the “Godfather” “look.” Here’s the famous shot of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) reflecting on the horrid deeds he has done in “The Godfather Part II”:
And here he is looking back from an older age, in 1990’s “The Godfather Part III” —a vastly different time when film stock and lighting styles had made films look more “real.” Here, he uses higher definition film stock to comb over line of regret and pain and guilt on Michael’s sinking face:
He was able to bring this dim style to a filmmaker almost Francis Ford Coppola’s opposite. Woody Allen, a filmmaker not regularly known for his cinematic panache, hired him seven times, starting with his first “serious” comedy, “Annie Hall.” (He had previously hired the great French cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet to shoot “Love and Death,” so he wasn’t new to the idea of pictorial lushness.) Willis, in “Visions of Light,” jokes about going too far with certain shots in “The Godfather Part II.” That didn’t dissuade him from underlighting this very funny bittersweet romantic comedy:
In a sense, Willis is a kind of co-director of “Manhattan,” by several leagues Allen’s most visually striking film:
Throughout “Manhattan,” shot in cinemascope black-and-white, Willis — by way of Allen, of course, who was clearly relishing at the opportunity to try something visually new — likes to bury people in the frame, sometimes “Where’s Waldo?”-style:
Or sometimes he likes to treat Allen and Diane Keaton like silhouettes — mere shapes yammering away:
In “Purple Rose of Cairo,” he recreated Depression-era New York City in color, but very drab color —as if then-modern-day cameras had been there to capture its grime and hopelessness, even when it’s invaded by an optimistic movie character (Jeff Daniels) who’s literally walked off the screen and into our world:
But before “Cairo,” Willis had already done the Depression. In 1982, he lensed “Pennies From Heaven,” Herbert Ross’ Americanized film version of the British miniseries that starred Bob Hoskins. Steve Martin took over the role of a music sheet salesman who fantasizes taking part in musical numbers. Willis’s warm colors mix with a certain starkness that pull these scenes ever so subtly back to miserable reality:
Or they again turn people into mere silhouettes:
But Willis wasn’t just about colors and lighting. He was about framing. “The Parallax View,” from 1974, is one of the tighter of the paranoid 1970s thrillers, and much of its power is derived from the detached framing, that displaces characters in off-kilter areas of the frame:
Or they simply arrange shapes in ways that overwhelm the retina:
Compared to many of his contemporaries, Willis only worked on a handful of films. He seems to have been a strict, possibly stubborn artist —the kind you call on only when you know you want his visuals to play a key part in your filmmaking. Every film he shot wasn’t great, but every film is great looking, including his swan song, 1997’s “The Devil’s Own,” which was also the swan song of his “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men” director Alan J. Pakula. (He liked working with the same filmmakers again and again — or they liked working with him.)
Willis, like many cinematographers, had a brief foray into directing, with 1980’s “Windows,” which he later said was a mistake. (This writer can’t at this time politely inform you that he was wrong, but he wouldn’t be the only great director of photography to make a bad film.)
Willis’ relative skimpy filmography isn’t a bad thing. His work is so accomplished and dense that it’s worth revisiting, as you would a painting —studying it again and again for its textures, hoping to find something new and maybe one day figuring out the delicacy that went into its singular creation.
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