Home > Film & stuff > In Memory of Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

In Memory of Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

Well, this is sad news. With film stock itself knocking on death’s door, a true master of the art of cinematography has now died. Gordon Willis was 82.

I can’t say anything about his astounding career that hasn’t already been said. I’m just a melancholy fan, even though he hadn’t worked on a film in 17 years. When he was working, it was almost always with directors of the highest caliber. Great directors know how to pick the best cinematographers, which is why Willis’ name is attached to so many classics. Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, men whose movies helped define 1970s film, looked to Willis for his expertise. He bathed movie stars in dark shadows in one scene and revealed them with light in the next. This may not seem different than what any other director of photography does, but that’s like saying a house painter is comparable to Cézanne. Like the late Roger Ebert liked to say, give or take: a movie is not what it’s about, but how it is about it. Willis didn’t simply add light and take it away — he made movies better with his craft, just like the best writers and performers do.

You cannot convince me that The Godfather would be as universally praised today if Willis didn’t shoot it. Its cinematography and that of its sequel is as much of a character as Vito or Michael. Manhattan is rightfully revered for its immaculate black and white look at New York. Sure, Woody’s dialogue tells us why New York is the greatest city in the world, but Willis showed us why. Shamefully, the Academy didn’t see the need to nominate him for any of these films. He did receive a much-deserved nod for Allen’s Zelig and Coppola’s third Godfather film, but he lost on both occasions. His honorary Oscar came in 2010, but a competitive statue eluded him. Hitchcock and Kubrick never got Oscars for directing, so Willis certainly wasn’t the first to be left out in the cold. I mention them not only because of their snubs, but because Willis’ name deserves to be included with theirs when talking about film history.

He also had a tremendously fruitful working relationship with Alan J. Pakula. KluteThe Parallax ViewAll the President’s Men … come on. His work with Pakula alone is enough to elevate him as one of the greatest shooters of all-time. Toss in the Godfathers, Annie HallThe Purple Rose of Cairo, and Broadway Danny Rose and he might be the greatest director of photography who ever chose a camera lens.

He hadn’t shot a film since 1997’s mediocre Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt vehicle The Devil’s Own, also a Pakula project. As unmemorable as the movie is, it looks incredible. His work in the ’90s was sparse. Presumed Innocent is an extremely underrated mystery/thriller that looks absolutely stunning. It’s a triumph for both Pakula and Willis that I like to revisit

at least once a year. With his astonishing output in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s a shame he didn’t keep the streak going. However, I can’t blame him for walking away from movies. In a terrific interview from a few years back, he said point blank, “[a]s for the business in general, I got tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.”

From the aforementioned interview, which I’ve read more than once over the years, and from documentary footage I’ve seen, he always struck me as a straightforward, no bullshit type of professional. I can’t blame him for retiring as early as he did. By the time 1980 rolled around, everything else was just gravy anyway.


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