Revered as one of the most artistically inventive and skilled cinematographers of the 1970s and 1980s, Gordon Willis (b. 1931) defined the pervasive anxiety and implacable darkness of the New American Cinema through his now famous collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Pakula, Woody Allen and Hal Ashby. Despite the scandalous neglect of the Academy in overlooking Willis, (corrected just before we went to press with the announcement of a much deserved Honorary Oscar to be awarded this November) he has been recognized as one of the postwar American cinema’s great masters by the next generation of cinematographers who learned from his example and especially by those artists, such as Michael Chapman (Raging Bull)and John Bailey (Mishima), who were directly shaped by their experience as his assistant.
An autodidact, Willis received his first camera training making commercials and documentaries before landing a series of feature films in 1970 - including the underrated Hal Ashby gem, The Landlord. Willis famously earned the name “Prince of Darkness”- given to him by the great fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall- for daring to use only the minimum of necessary light, frequently allowing backgrounds to go almost completely dark and eschewing the eye lights traditionally used throughout Hollywood cinema to ensure that actors’ eyes - as the supposed windows to the soul - remained always visible. The menacing shadows of Don Corleone’s study crafted by Willis in The Godfather not only embodied the new darkness prevalent throughout Vietnam-era American film but also introduced a sophisticated mode of visual and moral ambiguity that remains one of the most important legacies of the period’s cinema. A master of the long shot, Willis camerawork in films such as The Parallax View and Manhattan bought a richly expressive dimension to both studio sets and actual locations that rewarded the viewer with multi-layered and luminous imagery.
Special thanks: The Academy Foundation; The ConstellationCenter.
Directed by Woody Allen.
With Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy
US 1979, 35mm, b/w, 96 min.
Shot in black and white anamorphic widescreen, Willis’ lushly radiant cinematography transforms 1979 New York into a dreamlike fantasy city, albeit one filled with neurotic, terminally unsatisfied characters playing endless rounds of romantic roundelay. Woody Allen’s bittersweet valentine to his island hometown presents a deliriously romantic vision of the city tempered by an underlying sense of loss and pessimism about the ultimate futility of human relationships, a duality beautifully underscored by Willis’ brilliant camerawork, most famously in Manhattan’s iconic shot of Allen and Diane Keaton dwarfed by the vast architecture of the 59th Street Bridge.
Directed by Herbert Ross.
With Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken
US 1981, b/w and color, 108 min.
Willis brilliantly channeled the light and spirit of iconic Depression-era imagery - particularly the loneliness of Edward Hopper and the hard-scrabble lucidity of Walker Evans - into the landmark Hollywood remake of Dennis Potter’s magical British teleplay that built a fantasy bridge between Tin Pan Alley escapism and Depression-era misery. Willis cinematography is nothing short of tour de force, inventing a polished Art Deco noir beauty and a tawdry melancholy to define the irreconcilable worlds explored by Pennies from Heaven’s story of struggling sheet music salesman escaping from his downward spiraling life into a fantasy world drawn from movie musicals. One of the great films of the 1980s, Pennies from Heaven owes much of its power to Willis’ visionary camerawork and his ability to convey black-and-white glamour in brilliant colors that somehow bring with a cool, vaguely disturbing edge to the Thirties Chicago so beautifully evoked by the film.
Directed by Alan Pakula.
With Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, Hume Cronyn
US 1974, color, 102 min.
Willis collaborated with director Alan Pakula on a trilogy of films that established the paranoid thriller as one of the touchstones of 1970s American cinema. After Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1976), The Parallax View offers perhaps the most perfect example of the genre through its tale of a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy of ruthless political assassination. Willis is a master at conveying omnipresent yet invisible menace in scenes alternately wrapped in his signature shroud of darkness and bathed in a cool, cruel, blinding daylight. The harrowing climactic sequence of The Parallax View - an incredible example of what the “pure cinema” championed by Hitchcock in which the story is propelled by expressive image and montage over dialogue -contrasts the made-for-TV brightness of a political rally with the nebulous, pulsing shadows in the wings, whispering behind the lights and the cameras.
Directed by Woody Allen.
With Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello
US 1985, 35mm, b/w and color, 82 min.
The last of eight films shot for Woody Allen, Willis’ cinematography for The Purple Rose of Cairo perfectly evokes two distinct worlds – the bleak Depression-era New Jersey that is home to Mia Farrrow’s heartbroken housewife, and the glamorous black and white movie world that provides her sole escape from the doldrums of the everyday. At once a celebration and poetic cautionary tale of film spectatorship – and the potential dangers of trying to escape from reality through the cinema– Purple Rose executes a delicate balancing act between fantasy and fact, anchored by Willis’ assertively simple color palette and, as always, elegantly controlled camera work. As befitting a film about the love of movie-watching, only the Jewel movie theater is bathed in a warmly ethereal amber glow, contrasting the washed-out tones of the dishpan hand world outside.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
With Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan
US 1972, 35mm, color, 172 min.
Gordon Willis’ influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s American masterpiece cannot be underestimated – Willis’ groundbreaking use of low-light photography and underexposed film, as well as his choice of sepia tones to denote period, have become common visual signifiers in cinema today. Unlike the work of some younger cinematographers, Willis’ contributions are never superfluous – they unfailingly strengthen the themes of the story, adding layers of meaning and depth –shooting Marlon Brando in shadow, for example, his eyes hooded to convey the darkness of his inner thoughts. By utilizing slight variations on a consistent style, Willis maintains a sense of cohesion as the film travels from New York to Los Angeles, to Sicily and back while subtly conjuring changes in scene and mood. Print courtesy of the ConstellationCenter Collection at the Academy Film Archive.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
With Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall
US 1974, 35mm, color, 200 min.
Expanding upon the visual signifiers he established in the first Godfather film, Willis creates a sense of continuity, or perhaps fatality, in The Godfather: Part II by maintaining a consistent amber-inflected color scheme to bind the two films together. A grander, more ambitious undertaking than its predecessor , The Godfather: Part II depicts both the past and the present, unified by Willis’s camerawork, but made immediately identifiable as distinct time periods through subtle shifts in color, focus and mood. Coppola’s American epic – a gangster opera, as Willis calls it – is grounded by Willis’ exacting and subtly expressive cinematography.
Directed by Hal Ashby.
With Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands
US 1970, color, 112 min.
Willis brought an experimental, nervous energy to Hal Ashby’s feature debut, with edgy cinematography that captures the two polar worlds explored by the film’s prescient examination of racial and class conflict, juxtaposing the washed-out, gauzy Long Island light of a naïve Hamptons heir with the darker, urban tones of the Park Slope brownstone which he blindly purchases. In keeping with the film’s spirited mix of broad satire and keenly observed realism, Willis wields a variety of cinematographic devices to give visual shape to Bill Gunn’s mordant script, using overblown lighting to flatten the landlord’s family into caricature and crepuscular shadows to capture the urban malaise at the heart of the film. Throughout, Willis experiments with a remarkably expressive use of darkness to give contrasting shape to different lighting zones within the frame.