|(Top) Gordon Willis; Marlon Brando in Godfather
May 20: Gordon Willis, a master cinematographer whose work on The Godfather, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Klute, All the President’s Men and other seminal movies of the 1970s made his name synonymous with that pathbreaking decade in American moviemaking, died on Sunday. He was 82.
The cause was metastatic cancer, his son Gordon Willis Jr. said.
Willis created some of the most indelible cinematic imagery of the 1970s — or of any decade, for that matter — giving narrative propulsion to adventurous screenplays while expressing the moral ambiguities at the heart of so many of that decade’s films and of the society they mirrored.
Three films that he shot — Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) — won the Academy Award for best picture.
Yet Willis, a native New Yorker who chose to live on the East Coast, harboured an antipathy towards Hollywood that may have been mutual. From 1971 to 1977, seven films he photographed earned a total of 39 Oscar nominations, 19 of which won the award. He received not one of those nominations, to the astonishment of many of the peers he influenced.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for cinematographers, Gordon’s features would surely be chiselled into the rock face,” said Stephen Pizzello, the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer magazine.
Ultimately, Willis got two Oscar nominations for his cinematography — for Coppola’s The Godfather Part III (1990) and Allen’s Zelig (1983), but won neither — and he received an honorary Oscar in 2009.
The cinematographer Conrad Hall called Willis “the prince of darkness” for his daring use of minimalist light and embrace of shadows. It was fully on display in The Godfather, in the haunted look of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and in the gothic composition of Don Corleone’s study, and in the lush, romanticised images of Allen’s beloved Manhattan in the bittersweet 1979 comedy of the same name.
It was his celebrated use of light that he was most often asked about, particularly in The Godfather. He spoke about it in 1995, when he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
“People said, ‘You can’t see his eyes’,” he remarked, referring to Brando’s Don Corleone. “Well, you didn’t see his eyes in 10 per cent of the movie, and there was a reason why. I remember asking: ‘Why do you have to see his eyes in that scene? Based on what?’ Do you know what the answer was? ‘That’s the way it was done in Hollywood’.”
“That’s not a good enough reason,” he continued. “There were times when we didn’t want the audience to see what was going on in there, and then, suddenly, you let them see into his soul for a while.”
Willis worked in almost all genres, including westerns (Bad Company, Comes a Horseman), screwball comedies (The Money Pit) and period pieces (Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and The Purple Rose of Cairo).
Like many of the films he made during the 1970s, All the President’s Men reflected a national spiritual unease.
The way Willis lighted and shot the Washington parking garages where the reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) met clandestinely with the anonymous source known as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) — with an American presidency in the balance — suggested both the antiseptic angst of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.