“If a director is smart, he’ll give me the elbow room to paint.” So said Gordon Willis, who worked with some very clever directors indeed, who let him “paint” some of the most beautiful and influential movies of the 1970s and made an incalculable contribution to the Golden Age of New Hollywood. The sad news of his death yesterday at the age of 82 has robbed the world of one of the most important artists of the past fifty years.
Nicknamed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ by his fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall, Willis’s trademark was his use of shadows, not just in the composition of scenes but on actors’ faces. The interior scenes in The Godfather (1972) typify this stark technique, as do the underground car park scenes in All The President’s Men (1976), where Hal Holbrook’s “Deep Throat” is rendered faceless by Willis’s photography.
However, he was fond of contrasting these dark hues with vistas of bright golden colour. The scenes of Vito Corleone’s early life in The Godfather Part II (1974) are announced by Willis’s amber effect that paints the screen in olive oil and redefined the ‘nostalgia’ look from that moment on. Speaking about such contrasts, he explained that “I believe in the relativity of movie-making, which includes a world of light and dark, big and small, high and low, good and evil.”
Francis Coppola said of Willis, “He has a natural sense of structure and beauty, not unlike a Renaissance artist.” Willis shot all three Godfather movies with Coppola, but formed key alliances with two other major directors, Alan J Pakula and Woody Allen. Starting with Annie Hall in 1977, Willis shot seven movies for Allen, finishing with the wistful, nostalgic Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). It was Willis who suggested that Manhattan be filmed in black and white and in 2.35:1 widescreen. Possibly the most iconic single shot of Willis’s career is that breathtaking image of Allen and Diane Keaton sat on a bench in front of the 59th St Bridge, which Willis shot at 5am (though he had to bring his own park bench).
Pakula and Willis collaborated on All The President’s Men, Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) as well as Presumed Innocent (1990) and later The Devil’s Own (1997) – the final film for both men and as unworthy a swan song as was ever made by anyone.
The head of the American Society of Cinematographers, Richard Crudo said that Gordon Willis was “One of the giants who absolutely changed the way movies looked…He changed the way films looked and the way people looked at films.” And do you know how many Oscars Willis won? Have a guess. None. Zip. He was only nominated twice and one of those was for The Godfather Part III!
One’s legacy is often one’s own reward and Gordon Willis’s legacy will last for decades to come.