On May 18, Gordon Willis died. While his death did make the news everywhere, it was not given the headline treatment that an actor would receive or even what a director or writer may get. But while he may not have been a celebrity of the highest order, few people in history were as clearly at the peak of their profession as Willis was. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion,” and no one will argue with me when I say that is a severe understatement.
Willis began his career with a number of smaller films that have not stood the test of time, but then he took the position of cinematographer for The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972). Adapting the extraordinarily successful Mario Puzo novel was an Oscar-winning screenwriter and graduate of the Roger Corman Film School who had not yet proven his ability to tell visual stories named Francis Ford Coppola. It was an important project, and for such an important project with a young writer-turned-director in charge, the cinematographer is an even more important position than it usually is. I’m not enough of a historian of The Godfather to say how Willis was tapped for the job, but his getting it may have had more to do with that film’s success than any other individual.
The Godfather may be more remembered in the public imagination for the dialogue, infused with so many catchy lines that are so common as to be cliche 40 years later, but it was Willis’s mastery of simple-but-effective light-and-shadow techniques that truly made the film exceptional and would earn him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” However, even that nickname isn’t worthy of what Willis could do. A good cinematographer has more than one trick up his sleeve, and Willis was more than good. The famed wedding scene in The Godfather is a bright and cheery affair, filled with reflective whites that make the daytime lighting even brighter than it would otherwise have been. The darkness, especially around characters’ eyes, that is the real defining visual feature of the film infuses may of the scenes, but it was his ability to adapt to what each scene needed that made him such a master.
Willis followed a similar path to success with such films as The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1974), All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976), and of course The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974), defining a special type of dark, cavernous look that seemingly half of the films of the ’70s tried to mimic but never really could. And then, as luck would have it, he crossed paths with another young director who had some success but was more known for his writing (and, in this case, his comedy) and had yet to develop his own visual style.
In 1977, Woody Allen was already a success. He was one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the 20th century and had successfully transitioned into life as a film writer and director, but his films still often relied on his writing skills over visual abilities. Love and Death (France/USA 1975) had been a fine-looking film thanks to the efforts of long-time veteran cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, but when Willis came on board for Annie Hall (USA 1977), Allen went from a comedian/screenwriter who made some good films to a genius, and a big part of the difference was actually Gordon Willis.
The two would work together seven more times, ranging from the showy black and white of Manhattan (USA 1979) to the widely varying elegance of The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985). It was a partnership between a great writer and a great cinematographer that led to a series of films that were perfectly structured and loaded with incredible dialogue and visual storytelling. Allen gave Willis the ability to expand his palette beyond the cavernous darkness that Pakula and Coppola had created with him in the early ’70s and Willis made Allen’s films look absolutely beautiful no matter what the subject was.
After Willis and Allen stopped working together following The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis’s only real noteworthy projects were returns to working with Pakula and Coppola and essentially recreating his earlier work with them. He didn’t do as many important films as, say, Conrad Hall or Sven Nykvist, but I’m not sure any other cinematographer can lay as much claim to having created a dominating visual style as Willis can for his early ’70s work, particularly on the Godfather films.
Gordon Willis had not worked on a film in 17 years when he died, but his legendary career still establishes him as someone who will be missed.