Was behind camera on film classics


Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in "The Godfather." Gordon Willis, a Hollywood cinematographer whose dark palette heightened the suspense of such films as “The Godfather” and “All the President’s Men,” died May 18 at 82. (Paramount Pictures)
May 19

Gordon Willis, a cinema­tographer whose dark palette heightened the foreboding in popular and acclaimed films such as “The Godfather,” “Klute” and “All the President’s Men” and who proved a diverse stylist in eight Woody Allen movies, died May 18 at his home in North Falmouth, Mass. He was 82.

The cause was complications from cancer, said his son Gordon Willis Jr.

Cinematographers, also called directors of photography, work to create the visual experience of a film, particularly how light and shadows convey a mood and sense of place.

Mr. Willis helped shape movies that won dozens of Academy Awards. The American Film Institute included on its list of greatest movies ever made four of his projects: director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (No. 2) and “The Godfather: Part II” (No. 32), Allen’s “Annie Hall” (No. 35) and Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” (No. 77).

Mr. Willis received Oscar nominations for his work on Allen’s “Zelig” (1983) and Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part III” (1990) but did not win the prize until he received an honorary Academy Award in 2009 for “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”


Cinematographer Gordon Willis in 2009 with his honorary Oscar. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

“Gordy was a huge talent and one of the few people who truly lived up to all the hype about him,” Allen said in a statement.

Although honors eluded him for decades, Mr. Willis proved one of the most influential cinematographers of the “New Hollywood” movement in the 1970s, when young directors such as Coppola, Dennis Hopper and Martin Scor­sese began charting paths that broke with studio traditions in narrative and style.

Mr. Willis, a veteran of TV commercial work, successfully challenged studio-enforced lighting protocols that were intended to glamorize stars and were concerned mostly with the way images were seen at drive-in theaters.

Mr. Willis — much to the studios’ chagrin — reveled in shadow.

He conveyed unsettling depths of character by nearly blacking out an actor’s brow. Performers were shot in silhouette or in pinprick lighting, making the audience feel claustrophobically close in an ominous or intimate scene.

A fellow cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, dubbed Mr. Willis “the Prince of Darkness,” and the nickname stuck, especially as he made his reputation in dramas about the American underbelly of crime, sex and dirty politics.

Mr. Willis worked with Coppola on the “Godfather” mafia saga and with Pakula on “Klute” (1971), starring Jane Fonda as a New York call girl who is terrorized by a stalker, and “All the President’s Men” (1976), starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unraveling the Watergate political scandal.

Much of the Washington drama unfolded in sinister lighting, as when Hal Holbrook as the secret informant Deep Throat meets Woodward in a darkened garage.

Mr. Willis also partnered with Pakula on “The Parallax View” (1974), featuring Warren Beatty as an investigative reporter caught up in a conspiracy over a politician’s assassination.

Some of Mr. Willis’s best-known techniques developed simply from necessity. In “The Godfather” (1972), he used overhead lighting to shroud the eyes of Marlon Brando’s character, mafia don Vito Corleone. Mr. Willis initially took this step to help Brando’s makeup look real, but he decided to extend the technique throughout the whole picture.

“There were times when we didn’t want the audience to see what was going on in [Brando’s eyes], and then suddenly, you let them see into his soul for a while,” Mr. Willis once said.

“The Godfather” and its 1974 sequel were commercial hits and won several Academy Awards, including those for best picture. The films also “set off seismic repercussions for the craft with a daring use of darkness that played along the edge of what was considered acceptable,” said Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer magazine.

Pizzello cited the creators of “The X-Files,” a long-running Fox television series from the 1990s that trafficked in political and extraterrestrial paranoia, among those in Hollywood who turned to the dimly lit look of “All the President’s Men” for inspiration.

Gordon Hugh Willis Jr. was born May 28, 1931, in Queens. His father was a film studio makeup artist who, under the name Richard Willis, hosted a radio and TV show called “Here’s Looking at You,” which dispensed makeover advice to women.

During the Korean War, Mr. Willis served in the Air Force as a photographer in a motion-picture documentary unit. After his discharge, he joined the cameraman’s union as an assistant and worked on television commercials before his movie debut with director Aram Avakian’s “End of the Road” (1970), based on a John Barth novel.

Outside his darker-edge fare, Mr. Willis proved his versatility in such films as James Bridges’s “The Paper Chase” (1973), set at Harvard Law School, the poignant drama “Loving” (1970) and the farcical ghetto-set story “The Landlord” (1970).

Mr. Willis’s most extensive collaboration was with Allen, beginning with the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” (1977) and continuing with “Interiors” (1978), “Manhattan” (1979), “Stardust Memories” (1980), “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982), “Zelig” (1983), “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1984) and “Broadway Danny Rose” (1985).

Mr. Willis was credited with helping Allen develop a more mature visual style. “The ‘walk-and- talks’ were revolutionary,” Pizzello said, “showing characters talking on the streets of New York or coming in and out of rooms, wandering off screen, and giving it the naturalistic feel of everyday situations.”

The Allen films offer strikingly different moods, including what Mr. Willis called the “romantic reality” of New York in “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” and the fervid black-and-white of “Stardust Memories” that recalls Federico Fellini’s “81 / 2.”

Mr. Willis said that he did his most painstaking work on “Zelig,” a mock documentary about an fictional character who surfaces in historic newsreels with figures ranging from Babe Ruth to Adolf Hitler.

Achieving the time-worn look took, it turned out, lots of time scratching and scraping at the film. “The lack of perfection, that’s the hardest quality of all, because you’re fighting your instincts,” he once said.

Mr. Willis made one critically slammed venture in directing — the lesbian thriller “Windows” (1980), starring Talia Shire — before returning to his job as director of photography on such films as “The Money Pit”(1985), “The Pick-Up Artist (1987) and “Bright Lights, Big City” (1988). He also worked with Pakula, his early champion, on “Presumed Innocent” (1990), a crime thriller starring Harrison Ford, and “The Devil’s Own” (1997), an IRA drama with Ford and Brad Pitt.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Helen Stubsten Willis of North Falmouth; three children, Susan Willis of San Diego, Gordon Willis Jr. of Norwell, Mass., and Timothy Willis of Florence, Mass.; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Willis saw himself as a story­teller, like any writer or director, and he was known for his caustic assessments of colleagues and high-level executives who fell short in his estimation. They did so frequently.

“Tastes are always changing,” he told the trade publication Below the Line. “I’m delighted that people can fly, dogs can talk, and anything destructive can be fashioned on the screen, but much of what’s being done lacks structure or taste.

“As I’ve asked in the past: can anyone give me the definition of a camera? It’s a tool, a means to an end. So is a light, and everything else you can pile on your back. They’re all meant to transpose the written word into moving pictures that tell a story. Learn to do that, whatever camera you’re standing there with.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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