“Influential cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose photography for The Godfather series and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan helped define the look of 1970s cinema, has died, according to his close associate Doug Hart’s Facebook page. He was 82.” Variety‘s Pat Saperstein: “Willis was known as the Prince of Darkness for his artful use of shadows, and he was the director of photography on seminal 1970s films including Klute, The Paper Chase, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men.”
Saperstein refers us Roger Ebert‘s 2001 piece on Woody Allen’s Manhattan in which he calls it “one of the best-photographed movies ever made… Some of the scenes are famous just because of Willis’ lighting. For example, the way Isaac and Mary walk through the observatory as if they’re strolling among the stars or on the surface of the moon. Later, as their conversation gets a little lost, Willis daringly lets them disappear into darkness, and then finds them again with just a sliver of side-lighting.”
Jen Yamato, writing for Deadline: “Queens, NY-born Willis cultivated a background in photography and served in the Korean War as an Air Force Photographic and Charting Serviceman before starting his film career as an assistant cameraman, working his way up with commercials and documentaries. He made his debut as a cinematographer with four features in 1970: comedy End of the Road, Irvin Kershner’s Loving, drama The People Next Door, and Hal Ashby’s The Landlord.” And she quotes a statement from Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers: “This is a momentous loss. 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.”
In 2008, Willis oversaw the restoration of The Godfather, kicking up a bit of a controversy. As Glenn Kenny wrote at the time, Willis and his team “did a very bold thing. They reproduced the film with all the grain, with all the blown-out whites of the wedding scene… all the same ‘imperfections’ that made the studio people want to fire Willis. And help make Godfather the glorious film it is.”
“I did things in visual structure that nobody in the business was doing, especially in Hollywood,” Willis told John Lingan in Splice Today in 2009. “I wasn’t trying to be different; I just did what I liked. Don’t misunderstand when I say I really had no particular DP I was aspiring to be. I really fell in love with the movies as I was growing up, and I must say, I was emulating things that I saw others doing, that’s how you learn, but you soon have to push past that, and do things that you feel are right… or better.”
In 2012, Kristen Sales posted a series of entries she called “Gordon Willis’s New York.”
Updates: At the Dissolve, Noel Murray writes that “between 1970 and 1985 in particular, Willis joined the likes of Haskell Wexler, Néstor Almendros, Vilmos Zsigmond, Sven Nykvist, and Michael Ballhaus as part of a wave of cinematographers who were changing the way cinema looked, playing with lighting and film stock to give images a more tactile quality.” Though he’ll also be remembered for his work with Woody Allen and Pakula, “it was Willis’ work with Coppola that was his most significant, because the success of The Godfather and its first sequel opened up a window—however briefly—for Hollywood to make movies that took unusual and artful approaches to material that a decade earlier would’ve been rendered as generically as possible.”
Alan Greenblatt: “‘For a while, I really didn’t know what to do with that movie,’ he said of the original Godfather in a 2002 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. ‘I finally decided this should have this brassy, yellow look to it. Don’t ask me why. It just felt right.'”
“He was a master of unearthly transport who, without knowing it, changed my life,” writes Press Play editor Max Winter. “I moved to New York when I was 18 and would live there, with few interruptions, for 25 years. And, regardless of what I discovered—that New York is dirty, that not every conversation will be backlit with golden light, that staying up all night is not as glorious as it might seem—Willis’s vision stayed with me, and still stays with me.”
Willis “entered the industry at a time when camera and lens technology was rapidly changing, but preferred reliable tools over fads,” notes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “His ‘toolbox’ was so consistent that, for years, Panavision maintained a specific set of cameras and lenses just for him, to be picked up whenever he was shooting a project. Willis once said that a cinematographer’s job wasn’t ‘to recreate reality, but to represent it.’ His images—heightened, dramatic, but still grounded in a sense of the real world—changed not only American cinema, but the way American culture views itself.”
For the Guardian, Ronald Bergan writes that Willis’s “relationship with Allen started with ‘the sun-spangled vivacity that Willis brought to Annie Hall‘ (said the critic Pauline Kael), continuing with the richly textured black-and-white of Manhattan (1979) to the mockumentary Zelig (1983), for which Willis ‘aged’ the film stock by scratching and marking its surface, and matched footage seamlessly with newsreels from the 1920s and 30s, and finally The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), its Depression-era setting being evoked by the film’s subdued tones. Allen got Willis to capture the quality of Gianni Di Venanzo’s work on Federico Fellini‘s 8½ for his Felliniesque Stardust Memories (1980), and that of Sven Nykvist for his Ingmar Bergman-inspired movies Interiors (1978) and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), later promptly dropping Willis when he got Nykvist and Carlo Di Palma, Michelangelo Antonioni‘s cameraman, to work with him.”
In 2005, Lisa Rosman wrote a wonderful piece about a Cinematographers Guild breakfast that was followed by a screening of The Purple Rose of Cairo. By then, Willis was “for all practical purposes retired. He seems to think the industry and the world are in such dire straits that he’d prefer not to be actively involved. I talked with him alone afterward at the guild luncheon and he said he worries a lot about the world that his children, and all younger people, are inheriting. Then, he seemed less gruff than sad. Sad and unfailingly kind.”
Gilbert Cruz‘s posted images and clips at Vulture.
Updates, 5/21: “Following the legacy of perhaps the greatest cinematographer in the generation that preceded him, Gregg Toland, Willis’s genius as a craftsman cannot be underestimated,” writes Niles Schwartz for L’étoile: “the split diopter compositions of All the President’s Men, the extraordinary widescreen of Manhattan (the staircase on the right and the couch on the left, as Woody Allen tries to talk young Mariel Hemingway into leaving him), and of course the pre-Forrest Gump insertion of a fictional character into popular historical contexts throughout Zelig, an uncanny ongoing special effect that never draws attention to its technical ingenuity. The subtlest triumph may be the opening of The Godfather, where Willis had to operate a camera by remote control, pulling back so slowly from vengeful undertaker Amerigo Bonasera’s close-up that you barely notice the shape of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) emerging into the frame, and finally taking it over.”
John Anderson in the New York Times: “A direct influence on cinematographers like Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) and John Bailey (The Big Chill), Mr. Willis would say that in preparing a film, a director of photography has to ‘fit the punishment to the crime’—that is, find a way into the material that feels artistically and aesthetically appropriate.”
At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz talks with Robert Yeoman, the cinematographer for all of Wes Anderson’s features, about Willis’s legacy.
At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri looks back at Willis’s only directorial effort: “Willis himself reportedly called the film a ‘mistake,’ and it was not well received. Critics hated it, the public dismissed it, and it was nominated for five Razzie Awards—though, admittedly, this was in 1981, when the Razzies also famously nominated Stanley Kubrick for The Shining and Brian De Palma for Dressed to Kill, two films now generally considered masterpieces. Windows is no masterpiece; not even close. But it is uniquely strange and disturbing — a film that, for all its bizarre missteps, you can’t quite shake after you’ve seen it.”
Last summer, Tim Grierson devoted one of his “The Greats” columns to Willis.
Viewing (2’57”). New York Times film critic A.O. Scott discusses Willis’s work.
Update, 5/25: “Simply put, to anyone who watched his movies—meaning all of us—Gordon Willis created the 1970s as we remember them on film,” writes the Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr. “Willis’s ‘visual relativism,’ his canny play of lightness and dark, didn’t just reflect the era’s nagging ambiguities, it helped us frame and grapple with them in ways beyond the reach of words. Willis shaped our shared memory as surely as—and possibly more subtly than—the famous directors whom he served.”
Update, 5/28: “Willis, a rock-solid technician who started out shooting commercials and industrial films, wasn’t afraid to stand his ground, a characteristic that set him apart from the mostly deferential pros in his field.” For Variety, Steve Chagollan talks with those who knew and worked with him.
Update, 5/31: The Believer‘s posted an excerpt from Chris McCoy‘s interview with Willis that appears in the March-April film issue.
Update, 6/2: Jon Boorstin, associate producer on All The President’s Men and author of the new novel Mabel and Me, recalls his days on the set of The Parallax View for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Gordon ruled the set. He was famously intolerant of pretense of all sorts, particularly phonies. With a mane of wiry hair and a fierce, focused glare, he’s the only man I’ve known who actually looked leonine. He liked that it kept folks at a distance…. His Godfather work had been snubbed by the Academy, and he considered himself at war with Hollywood; apparently they’d tried to keep him off the West Coast because he was only in the New York union…. I became his companion, in bars mostly. He was warm and conspiratorial. He didn’t try to use me. We only talked about movies, mostly Parallax View. I asked smart questions. I wanted long answers.”
Updates, 6/21: “His influence will never wane; there simply isn’t anyone who’s any good who isn’t standing on his shoulders,” writes Steven Soderbergh. “I interviewed him for a documentary I made about his first feature, End of the Road, and used the opportunity to ask him about some other things as well…” Some other things indeed. This is one long, wide-ranging conversation.
Cinematographer John Bailey notes that, since Willis’s death, “critics and filmmakers have evoked his lighting of Marlon Brando and the many murky interiors in The Godfather as his signature style, and this technique has certainly been influential on several generations of younger cinematographers. But it was his lighting of the Washington Post newsroom set in All the President’s Men that was, in 1975, just as large a gauntlet thrown down in front of the Hollywood cinematography establishment.” There, of course, the set is “bathed in bright, shadowless, fluorescent light.”