Gordon Willis, one of cinema’s greatest cinematographers, died Sunday night at 82 years old (http://bit.ly/1sLL3gC). To say that Willis changed film is an understatement. He was one of cinema’s most influential artists, as well as its most crucial. While most cinematography shot in the 1970’s tended to still carry an overlit, Universal Studios feel to it, Willis was shooting far more realistically, incorporating shadows and the natural light of the surroundings. He often filled his frame with foreground activity as well as background activity too, making the frame much more active. And yet, he could let his camera rest on a face or a setting too, unfettered, for long lengths of time. Willis was a technician and a poet, with few equals then or now. And his legacy can be found in some of the most important works of film ever made.
For starters, he’s the guy who shot THE GODFATHER saga. He photographed all Alan Pakula’s ‘paranoia trilogy’ from the 1970’s: THE PARALLAX VIEW, KLUTE and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. He shot most of Woody Allen’s best works including ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. And he lensed many other important works too like THE PAPER CHASE, UP THE SANDBOX and PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.
And yet he never won an Oscar in competition, though he was awarded a special one in 2010. Because he was a member of the New York cinematographer’s union, the LA members snubbed him repeatedly in his career. Would you believe that he was not nominated for THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN? (http://imdb.to/1n9GSxS) That is not only an insult; it’s a tragedy.
Nonetheless, Academy Awards are not the end-all, be-all and Willis didn’t need one to underline his superior talent. In fact, the greatest reward of his work is that it has so clearly stood the test of time like few others have. Personally, he has always been my favorite cinematographer and shot so many of the films I love. Here then, as a tribute to the memory of this great man, are my 10 all-time favorite shots in the Willis canon.
THE GODFATHER (1972)
Willis’ last shot in this landmark movie is an audacious one, mostly in its simplicity as it shows quite literally, the door shutting Kay (Diane Keaton) out of the world of her husband Michael (Al Pacino). He’s now the mafia don, a murderer, and a liar. And Willis shows that she is no longer welcome as her access is literally closed off.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
In the year of our bicentennial, Alan J. Pakula directed this film noir version of the titular Woodward/Bernstein true crime saga about President Nixon and his dirty tricks. And Willis shot it to maximize every dark corner, suspicious voice and threat. Even the moments of brevity carried villainous overtones, as when Woodward (Robert Redford) is gathering information about shady CIA operative E. Howard Hunt. He casually scribbles a face on his notepad. And, as he finds out worse things about Hunt, he returns to the drawing and makes the visage more menacing.
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
I love the melancholy minor masterpiece that this Woody Allen movie is. Here he plays Danny Rose, a third-rate agent of fourth-rate acts, who becomes entangled with a lounge singer connected to the mob. After he’s lost his client and his shot at the big time, Rose gathers all the remaining clients he has for Thanksgiving. It’s Swanson frozen dinner entrees and they’re all ecstatic to be fed and loved by Rose. And Willis frames the scene to show just how small and cramped their world is. But it’s still filled with a certain joy.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Another favorite image from one of the 70’s greatest films shows what the two young reporters are up against in challenging the Oval Office. They go to the Library of Congress to look up information from the card catalogue and Willis’ camera pulls back farther and farther, revealing them to be specks in the imposing corridors of D.C. power.
THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Mafia don Michael Corleone has vanquished all of his enemies, even his turncoat brother, by the end of the movie. He’s pushed everyone else away, including friends and family. Thus, he sits alone by the lake of his Nevada home, brooding and staring out at the vast lake. Even though he’s ‘won’, his face is frozen in acrimony. Willis pushes him almost out of the shot. Michael’s at the very edge of existence now, with nothing and no one left. You know why they didn’t need a third GODFATHER movie? Because Michael is essentially dead inside and to the world by the last shot of this amazing sequel. The third outing was, frankly, overkill.
THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974)
Willis was a master of putting character in context of their surroundings. In movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and THE PARALLAX VIEW, he brilliantly illustrated the film’s theme of the little guy up against big forces by showing the breadth of their Goliath's. When Warren Beatty’s reporter is led to the campaign rally where he knows an assassination is going to take place, the vast room is decked out in the ol’ red, white & blue. He’s up against the powers of corruption behind the mammoth event and he's doomed. And it's all foreshadowed in the way Willis shoots the monolithic event hall.
THE PAPER CHASE (1973)
Sometimes how close the camera gets to an actor is as important as any decision a cinematographer and director can make together. And in THE PAPER CHASE, shooting the tyrannical Harvard law professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) a tad too close made him all the more imperious. His head loomed ridiculously large on the screen, but it worked spectacularly. Rarely were close-ups shot that close in film, certainly, not continuously, but Willis and his director James Bridges wanted to give Kingsfield the appearance of a looming, disapproving ‘god’. And boy, did they ever succeed.
Continuing with the Willis characteristics of natural lighting and danger in the darkness, the movie KLUTE tells the story of Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a prostitute, whose life is being threatened by a dangerous john. When she answers an out call from an elderly haberdasher, she agrees to meet him in his cutting room. It’s after hours and dark, and seemingly innocent, but Willis lets the dark shadows and harsh fluorescents create a vibe that exudes the possibility that this could be the lair of her killer. Every second of KLUTE is fraught with fear like that. It's Willis’ understanding that the Bree character is always close to danger, no matter what the setting.
THE GODFATHER (1972)
I submit one more to you from what I consider to be the greatest film of all time, and the greatest filmed movie of all time. It’s the death of Moe Green (Alex Rocco), and we all know how disturbing an image it is. What I find most incredible about it is that there is no cut. We see a close-up of Moe’s face as he reacts to someone entering the room. He’s in the middle of a massage, so he bends up slightly to put on his glasses. And just as he does, the shot comes. Right in the eye! And the blood pours of the wound seconds later. Now, a lot of cinematographers would not have been so confident to have it all happen in camera in one shot, but Willis knew it had to look utterly real to devastate. Cutting to a close-up of the blood pouring out after the glasses break might’ve helped the special effects team, but it would have robbed the scene of its impact. Willis remained on Green’s face the entire time, and thus, it remains forever seared in our minds.
Probably one of Willis’ most iconic images; so much in fact, it was used in the movie’s poster. Isaac (Woody Allen) woos Mary (Diane Keaton) throughout the city and ends up sitting on a park bench with the 59th Street Bridge in the background. Woody wanted to woo audiences too and make us fall in love with the New York that he adored so thoroughly. And through Gordon Willis’ arresting black and white images, moviegoers sure did.
What is your favorite image from a movie that Gordon Willis filmed? No matter what it is, I’m sure it's wonderful, as was his illustrious career. The movie world has truly lost a giant with his passing. Luckily for all of us, his images loom larger than life for eternity.