'Easy Rider' Cinematographer László Kovács

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

László Kovács, 74, a Hungarian-born cinematographer who distinguished himself on "Easy Rider" and became a frequent collaborator of director Peter Bogdanovich's, died July 22 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., after an apparent stroke.

A cinematographer, also called a director of photography, works to create the visual appearance of a film, particularly how light and shadow convey a mood and sense of place.

On screen, Mr. Kovács was long associated with his evocative depiction of American landscapes, an interest often attributed to a bus ride he took across the United States after arriving as a political refugee.

He broke into the American movie industry photographing "Hell's Angels on Wheels" and other low-budget exploitation movies about fast bikes and women. His expertise in the genre led director Dennis Hopper to approach him about "Easy Rider" (1969), which Mr. Kovács said he initially turned down "because I had my fill of motorcycle films."

Yet Hopper's dramatic explanation of the script and Mr. Kovács's urge to insert the landscape as a character helped him overcome his reluctance.

The Hopper film, about the "search for America" of two doomed motorcyclists, became an anthem of the rising anti-establishment culture. Notable at the time was how it showed a drug high, which Mr. Kovács helped depict through psychedelic cinematography -- odd camera angles interspersed with flashing lights and the like. This was accompanied by jagged editing and rock music to produce one of the most distinctive films of the period.

From then on, the versatile and prolific Mr. Kovács left behind cheapie productions to work with the best directors of the 1970s: Bob Rafelson ("Five Easy Pieces," "The King of Marvin Gardens"), Hal Ashby ("Shampoo"), Martin Scorsese ("New York, New York," "The Last Waltz") and Steven Spielberg (as one of several cinematographers on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind").

Mr. Kovács's most frequent collaborator was Bogdanovich, with whom he made seven movies, including the brisk thriller "Targets" (1967) and the sensitive drama "Mask" (1985). He provided Bogdanovich with memorable black-and-white photography in "Paper Moon" (1973).

Most observers agree that Mr. Kovács's best work was confined to the 1970s. He later worked on dozens of popular, mainstream films of widely varying quality that did not always take advantage of his visual imagination. They included "Frances" (1982), Ivan Reitman's "Ghost Busters" (1984) and "Legal Eagles" (1986), Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything" (1989), "The Next Karate Kid" (1994), "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997) and "Miss Congeniality" (2000).

Mr. Kovács was born May 14, 1933, in rural Cece, Hungary. His interest in film began by watching wartime propaganda screened in a school classroom.

Soon after graduating from Budapest's Academy of Drama and Film Art, an uprising began in October 1956 in response to a renewed call by the Communist Party to limit freedom of expression.

The next month, Soviet troops entered Budapest to stop the rebellion. Mr. Kovács and a friend, future Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, documented the revolt and its defeat on a 35mm camera they hid in a paper bag with a hole for the lens.

"Wherever we heard gunfire, that's where we went," Mr. Kovács said.

They smuggled 30,000 feet of film out of the country, at one time hiding it in a cornfield before being frisked by Soviet soldiers. Via Austria, Mr. Kovács and Zsigmond made their way to the United States.

He said U.S. television networks did not initially air the material because it was considered old news, but footage was used in a CBS documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite several years later.

Mr. Kovács held a variety of menial jobs, including tapping maple syrup in Upstate New York, before entering the U.S. television and film industry.

His break came when Hopper saw his photography work in "Psych-Out" (1968), one of many films he made for low-budget director Richard Rush. Mr. Kovács's inventiveness on such films paid off in "Easy Rider," which also had a minimal budget.

"We had the motorcycles in one small truck and all the camera and lighting gear in another one," he told the journal of the International Cinematographers Guild. "There was no room for a dolly," a wheeled platform for a camera. "My camera car was a Chevy convertible with a plywood platform. It looks spontaneous, but don't let that fool you. We rehearsed and staged every scene, and I lit to establish the mood and setting."

Mr. Kovács received the American Society of Cinematographers lifetime achievement award in 2000. He and Zsigmond are the subject of a working documentary by cinematographer James Chressanthis, and Mr. Kovács was nearing completion of a feature documentary about the Hungarian Revolution using much of his old footage.

Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Audrey Vaught Kovács of Beverly Hills; a daughter from the marriage, Julianna Kovács of Beverly Hills; a daughter from an earlier relationship, Nadia Kovács of Beverly Hills; and a granddaughter.

Actor Jean-Paul Belmondo's character in director Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960) used the alias László Kovács, but that was apparently a coincidence. The similar name became a subject of speculation during Mr. Kovács's work on Bogdanovich's 1971 documentary about Hollywood director John Ford.

According to the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, some thought film buff Bogdanovich was performing his own camera work and using a fake name.

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