Director of Photography
Director of Photography
Born: May 28, 1931; Died: May 18, 2014
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Gordon Willis, the legendary cinematographer, who has died aged 82, was one of the key figures of American cinema in the 1970s, helping bring the Godfather trilogy and Woody Allen's best films to the screen.
Nicknamed the Prince of Darkness for his ability to play with shadow and light, Willis's cinematography was one of the great joys of American cinema in the years before Star Wars. And he knew the worth of his own talents. He once said, "It's hard to believe, but a lot of directors have no visual sense. They only have a storytelling sense. If a director is smart, he'll give me the elbow room to paint."
Born in Queens, New York, Willis spent most of his life turning - to quote director John Boorman's definition of cinema - money into light. The son of a make-up man for Warner Brothers, Willis found his way to cinema via the army. During the Korean War he was assigned to the Air Force Photographic and Charting Service where he spent most of his time learning everything he could about film-making.
He shot his first film in 1969 and within a year he had started a long-lasting collaboration with director Alan J Pakula on Klute, starring Jane Fonda, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the call girl Bree Daniel, and Donald Sutherland. "Gordon Willis makes so much of the picture a study in the colours of night and stealth," the film critic David Thomson wrote last year.
The film's dreamy, paranoid vision was a huge influence on the subsequent new American cinema of the 1970s and Willis was responsible for many of the key films of the era, shooting both The Parallax View and All the President's Men for Pakula. For the first time American cinema was embracing ambiguity and Willis provided a visual template for it. But it was his work on the Godfather trilogy with Francis Ford Coppola and on Annie Hall and Manhattan - filmed in glorious black and white - with Woody Allen that sealed his reputation.
He was a long-term collaborator with Allen, shooting Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, one of Allen's most joyful movies and, Manhattan apart, perhaps his most beautiful.
He made one, little-regarded, foray into directing with the 1980 film Windows, an erotic thriller starring Talia Shire, but he soon returned to his customary place behind the lens where he continued to work into his seventh decade, shooting films such as Presumed Innocent and Malice. His last film credit came in 1997 working once more with Pakula on the IRA thriller The Devil's Own, with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt, a film that proved something of a diminuendo in both men's stellar filmography. "I got tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain," he said of his subsequent retirement.
Remarkably he never received an Oscar nomination during his golden years in the 1970s, though nominations did follow for Zelig and The Godfather Part III and he was finally given an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2010.