The Greats: Gordon Willis

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a new biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

When we discuss Hollywood’s so-called renaissance of the 1970s, we tend to think of certain directors: Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby. But if there is one cinematographer most closely associated with that decade’s intelligent, individualistic mainstream films, it’s Gordon Willis. His name in the credits practically guaranteed that you were about to see something worthwhile, and his pictures ran the gamut from grand dramas (The Godfather) to sharp comedies (Annie Hall) to superb thrillers (All the President’s Men) to evocative musicals (1981’s Pennies From Heaven). Other cinematographers would try to figure out exactly how he managed to craft such deep, rich visual styles for so many different types of movies. But Willis was never much help in elucidating his process. “You’re looking for a formula; there is none,” he once said. “The formula is me.”

Willis recently turned 82, and he hasn’t shot a film for over 15 years, due in part to failing vision—a cruel malady for someone with such an eye. He’s been around movies from an early age, his father working in makeup during the Depression. Growing up in Queens, Willis thought he might become an actor or a fashion photographer—his parents were dancers for a time—but he joined the Air Force during the Korean War, working on instructional films. Returning to the U.S., he served as a cameraman on commercials and documentaries, finally becoming a director of photography in the late ’60s.

His first triumph occurred only a few years later. The Godfather is adored for many reasons, but its painterly period look is integral to its greatness, suggesting both nostalgia and dread, sepia mixing with shadows that cover the characters’ eyes—and their intentions. Willis struggled to come up with a visual strategy for the film during preproduction, but then an idea hit him. “I finally decided, ‘This should be this kind of brassy yellow look to it,’” he recalled in 2002. “Don’t ask me why—it just felt right, you know? … And the other part of the thinking was, ‘It should have this kind of New York street look—one foot in the gutter, ’40s kind of feeling, a little dirty.” The Godfather is about loyalty and ambition, and the movie’s depiction of the mobster mythos as an insidious twist on the American Dream can be felt in every conflicted frame: It’s a warm family drama that feels sinister.

Willis’s fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall once dubbed him “the prince of darkness,” a great nickname but not entirely accurate. True, his moody lighting in thrillers like The Parallax View and Klute adds palpable tension to those movies, but it’s really the juxtaposition of light and dark—say, between the sun-splashed wedding of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) daughter and the dimly lit meetings with his lieutenants—that give his movies their dramatic power. One of the overriding themes of Hollywood’s ’70s films is the impact of Vietnam and Watergate on the culture, and you can sense in Willis’s movies that innocence is giving way to a grim new reality. If there’s darkness in The Godfather or All the President’s Men—which chronicled journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein’s (Dustin Hoffman) investigation into the Watergate break-in—it’s merely reflecting a newfound societal mistrust of once-sacred institutions and ideals.

Another testament to Willis’s talent is directors’ desire to work with him on a string of projects. He made all three Godfather films with Coppola and several movies with Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men). But perhaps his most crucial partnership was with Woody Allen. With Willis’s help, the comedic filmmaker evolved from his “early funny” period of Sleeper and Take the Money and Run to more sophisticated works like Annie Hall, Stardust Memories and Zelig. No longer simply producing setup-then-punch-line films, Allen learned from Willis how to think cinematically, creating scenes that were as visually striking as they were funny.

Their collaboration proved fruitful from the beginning. Willis recently related a story of his early days with Allen, encouraging the actor-director to be out of the frame when delivering his lines so as to create more dynamic dialogue scenes. “[Allen] said, ‘Yeah, but I’ll be off-screen—you won’t see me,’” Willis recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but they’ll hear you.’ A light bulb went off in his head—he thought, ‘This is great.’” Allen and Willis stopped working together in the mid-’80s, but Allen still utilizes the technique to this day.

The highpoint of their partnership was Manhattan, a gorgeous, melancholy portrait of doomed love shot in black-and-white. The idea to avoid color was Allen’s, but Willis immediately embraced the approach. “I look at New York, it’s kind of a black-and-white city to me,” he told interviewer Terry Gross. “When you work in color, it’s a burden. It can be a burden to an audience if you don’t use it properly.” In a separate interview, he elaborated, hinting at his overall philosophy about filmmaking. “The thing that you want to do is take a sophisticated idea and reduce it to the simplest possible terms … so that it’s accessible to everyone,” he explained. “Generally the opposite happens, people take a standalone idea and tie [it] into knots. Very few people understand the elegance of simplicity. I hate clutter … or motion confused with accomplishment.”

The elegance of simplicity resonates throughout the films he’s shot—the unfussy detail of Pennies From Heaven; the effortless tracking shots in Manhattan; the docudrama starkness of All the President’s Men. Perhaps that explains why he was only nominated twice for the Academy Award: for his clever replication of 1920s-style newsreel footage in Allen’s Zelig and seven years later for The Godfather III. As was true in his era, we tend nowadays to reward cinematography that’s overtly showy while too easily disregarding the more nuanced stylists. But in 2009, the Academy bestowed upon him an Honorary Oscar, a belated acknowledgment of the long shadow his career has left on future cinematographers such as the late Harris Savides, whose work on Zodiac can be seen as a loving homage to All the President’s Men’s quietly claustrophobic tone.

“I have no idea what direction the film business will go in the next 10 years,” Willis said in 2004, “but for those of you trying to make your mark, try not to turn the business into a huge landfill of nothing but garbage. We’re very close to that now. Always try and bring something good in; we have plenty of people doing the opposite.”

Simple advice. But like so many of Willis’s contributions, much harder to emulate than it seems.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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