Gordon Willis, who shot The Godfather trilogy, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Parallax View and more, died yesterday at the age of eighty two. Though he was only nominated twice for an Academy award (and received an honorary statue in 2010), he is the defining cinematographer of the 1970′s.
Willis was a Korean war vet whose father worked in the film business as a make up artist, which may have been his introduction to the industry. He did some camera operating in the sixties and moved up to being the director of photography in 1970 with a film called End of the Road, but also Irvin Kershner’s Loving, and Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. The next year he was involved with his first masterpiece in Klute, which was directed by Alan J. Pakula — but the film’s intense, moody exteriors, and its approach to the anamorphic widescreen make the question of authorship complicated. But if there were any questions of his genius, 1972 provided The Godfather. In that film, Willis earned his nickname as the “Prince of Darkness” as he — partly to deal with the limitations of the make up — lit Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in such a way that you can rarely see his eyes, on top of his use of a darkened frame and yellowed tone.
Willis liked working with certain directors, so he shot six films with Pakula (including Parallax, All the President’s Men and Presumed Innocent), and eight with Woody Allen (including Stardust Memories, Purple Rose of Cario and Broadway Danny Rose). He was the cinematographer on Allen’s Manhattan, as mentioned above, a film that would easily qualify as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot, and yet Willis did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work (he was nominated for Zelig and The Godfather Part III), which suggests the academy did not respect him. Fools. Though it doesn’t belong on a shelf with his greatest work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention 1993′s Malice, which is just a deliciously entertaining movie.
By using the amberish yellow to frame The Godfather as a story of the past (invoking the discoloration that happens when photographs and newspapers age), Willis single handedly changed the vocabulary of cinema, as it was an approach that was imitated for decades. Gordon was a master, and though he effectively retired in 1997 after shooting The Devil’s Own, as one of the great artists of cinema he will be missed.
What’s your favorite Gordon Willis movie?