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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Gordon Willis May 28, 1931 - May 18, 2014

Gordon Willis and the Bum Deal.

George laments one of the greats.

What I can only call a colossal miscarriage of justice is that Gordon Willis never received an Oscar. (Okay, he received one, but I will explain that later.) He was barely nominated. In the seven years up to 1977, Willis was the director of photography on six films that received 39 Academy Award nominations, winning 19 times, including three awards for Best Picture, The Godfather, The Godfather Part Two (can I say the rare case when the sequel is better than the original?) and Annie Hall! 

He was known as the Prince of Darkness. For his use of shadows (duh!). Not in a film noir way, but more like classical paintings by Rembrandt and Carravagio. Sophisticated compositions and brilliant lighting set him apart from his contemporaries. The first time we see Don Corleone, it's in his darkened home office. It's just his right hand in silhouette. As the camera slowly tracks back to reveal the room. Damn! That's some spicy stuff! 

He finally got nominated for Woody Allen's Zelig. Which was fantastic, but it was a hot year for cinematography. Check this out at the 56th Academy Awards, way back in 1983. The best Cinematography nominees wereFlashdance – Donald Peterman, Fanny And Alexander- Sven Nyquist, The Right Stuff – Caleb Deschanel, WarGames – William A. Fraker, and Zelig – Gordon Willis!

How do you make that choice? It's not like that baby thing with King Solomon, but it's a tough choice. These are all great-looking films. (I wouldn't have had much of a career shooting music videos without Flash Dance!) The Academy went with a foreigner, giving the award to the masterful Sven Nyquist even though he won an Oscar for Cries and Whispers in 1973! 

Gordon was nominated again in 1991 for Godfather Part Three! (An example of why you should quit while you are ahead.) He loses again! A spectacular lineup of Directors of Photography, Dean Semler for Dances with Wolves, Allen Daviau for Avalon ("What was the movie we saw with the stagecoach? A very good movie." "Stagecoach." "No, that's not it. It has John Wayne," "Stagecoach!") Vittorio Storaro for the gorgeous, Dick Tracy, Gordon Willis for Godfather Part Three, and Philippe Rousselot for Henry and June. Dances With Wolves won plenty of Academy Awards that night and has the gall to take home the best Cinematography too!

Finally, the Motion Picture Academy throws one of those honorary Oscars at him, which beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick soon after he retires and kicks the bucket. There is a legend that is supposed to answer why he got skipped over so many times. It's that he hated the studios. He hated the constant penny-minded accountants. Gordon felt that the business and the art of cinema are in a bad marriage. Who reading this disagrees? I have a few friends who are producers that would say, "Poppycock!" or some other such dismissive exclamation. The creatives should create, and the studios should write the checks, stand back, and let the magic happen. But that's fantasy. It's show business, and the two are forever intertwined. 

Note: Gordon Willis directed one film, Windows. Being a truth-teller he admitted the film had been a mistake and later said of directing that he didn't like it. "I've had a good relationship with actors," he reflected, "but I can do what I do and back off. I don't want that much romance. I don't want them to call me up at two in the morning crying, 'I don't know who I am?'" Also, Windows got poor reviews, and for being anti-gay and specifically anti-lesbian, the theaters showing the film had daily protests.

Windows looked great as Gordon was also the cinematographer, but it's a strange B-picture that needs to make more sense. Any sense would help!

We should applaud our geniuses when they are here to keep them creative and full of confidence so they continue to inspire the youngsters who want to follow in their footsteps.  

Here is a, probably complete, list of his films. Which are your favorites? There's room at the bottom to comment.

1965 The Beatles at Shea Stadium Bob Precht

1970 End of the Road Aram Avakian

The Landlord Hal Ashby

Loving Irvin Kershner

The People Next Door David Greene

1971 Little Murders Alan Arkin

Klute Alan J. Pakula

1972 Bad Company Robert Benton

The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola

Up the Sandbox Irvin Kershner

1973 The Paper Chase James Bridges

1974 The Parallax View Alan J. Pakula

The Godfather Part II Francis Ford Coppola

1975 The Drowning Pool Stuart Rosenberg

1976 All the President's Men Alan J. Pakula

1977 September 30, 1955 James Bridges

Annie Hall Woody Allen

1978 Interiors Woody Allen

Comes a Horseman Alan J. Pakula

1979 Manhattan Woody Allen

1980 Windows Gordon Willis

Stardust Memories Woody Allen

1981 Pennies from Heaven Herbert Ross

1982 A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy Woody Allen

1983 Zelig Woody Allen

Broadway Danny Rose Woody Allen

1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Woody Allen

Perfect James Bridges

1986 The Money Pit Richard Benjamin

1987 The Pick-up Artist James Toback

1988 Bright Lights, Big City James Bridges

1990 Presumed Innocent Alan J. Pakula

The Godfather Part III Francis Ford Coppola

1993 Malice Harold Becker

1997 The Devil's Own Alan J. Pakula

1984 TV movie: The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck Simon Langton

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Aug 10, 2023

The Paper Chase is a really well shot film. The whole film is really great looking especially the exteriors around Boston.

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