American Cinematographer - August 2014 - 84

In Memoriam
Gordon Willis, ASC died on
May 18 from complications with
cancer. He was 82.
Willis was born on May 28,
1931 in Astoria, Queens, New York
City. His parents had been dancers in
Broadway theater before his father
became a makeup man at Warner
Bros. in Brooklyn during the depression. In his youth, Willis considered a
career in acting, but after performing
in some summer-stock productions
during his teens, he became more
interested in stagecraft and lighting.
Willis served in the U.S. Air
Force during the Korean War, initially
working for the military air-transport
service before managing to join the Air
Force Photographic and Charting
Service in a motion-picture unit, where
he spent several years doing documentary work. After earning an
honorable discharge, Willis joined the
cameraman's union as an assistant,
progressing from second assistant to first
assistant over the course of 14 years.
After shooting commercials and
working on a number of jobs at MPO Television Films, Willis got the chance to shoot his
first feature when he was hired by director
Aram Avakian to shoot the surreal 1970
drama End of the Road. Then, in 1972,
Willis got the break that would define his
career when director Francis Ford Coppola
tapped him to shoot The Godfather. Willis
readily conceded, "Francis and I did have a
lot of disagreements while we were shooting the movie, but if it weren't for him and
his vision of what the movie should be, it
never would have happened at the right
level."
Willis also forged an enduring collaboration with director Alan Pakula, for whom
he shot six films: Klute (1971), The Parallax
View (1974), All the President's Men (1976),
Comes a Horseman (1978), Presumed Innocent (1990) and The Devil's Own (1997), the
final movie on which Willis served as director
of photography. Pakula, who died in 1998,
recalled his impressions of the cinematogra84

August 2014

pher for a 1978 profile of Willis penned by
James Stevenson for The New Yorker.
"There's no better cinematographer than
Gordon. Working with him is collaboration
at its best. It's a joy, it's fun, it's camaraderie
- like being kids and playing after school.
They say about certain film editors that they
have 'gifted fingers.' Gordon has that kind
of eye. The thought is all in the work. He's
embarrassed talking about it; he's very
private about it, and I love that. He'll talk as
long as you can talk specifics, but he has a
gifted ear for crap. He doesn't give respect
easily."
In the late Seventies, Willis began
another landmark collaboration when he
first teamed with writer-director Woody
Allen on Annie Hall (1977). In Eric Lax's
definitive 1991 biography of Allen, the
director enthused, "Gordon's is a very
American style. It's wonderful. He would
have been sensational working with John
Ford or someone like that. His shots are
superbly lit. I mean like Rembrandt. He just
loves to paint with light."
Likewise, Willis found Allen to be an
ideal collaborator whose temperament and
American Cinematographer

working style mirrored and complemented his own approach to filmmaking. "I always enjoyed dealing with
Woody as a person," Willis said. "I
probably enjoyed him a lot more than
he enjoyed me, because I'm Mr. Get It
Done. When you're collaborating with
Woody, it's like working with your
hands in your pockets; it's a very easygoing atmosphere."
Willis joined the ASC in 1975,
after having been recommended for
membership by Society member
Howard Schwartz. In 1995, the ASC
presented Willis with its Lifetime
Achievement Award. Additionally, in
2009, the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences awarded Willis an
honorary Academy Award for his lifetime achievements in cinematography
after nominating him two prior times
for competitive Oscars to recognize his
work on Zelig (1983) and The Godfather Part III (1990).
"It's common knowledge among
the informed that [Willis] stands beside Griffith, Welles, Ford and maybe a few others
as one of the industry's great originators,"
says ASC President Richard P. Crudo. "Just
as those men did before him, he not only
changed the way movies look, he changed
the way we look at movies. It's impossible to
overstate his influence over the past 40
years.
"This is a momentous loss, one that
the world should take serious note of,"
Crudo continues. "If it's safe to say there
will never be another Rembrandt, I have an
even safer bet for you: There will never be
another Gordon Willis."
Willis is survived by his wife of nearly
six decades, Helen; two sons, Gordon Jr.
and Tim; a daughter, Susan; and five grandchildren. Donations in his memory can be
made to the library at Perkins School for the
Blind, 175 N. Beacon St., Watertown, MA
02472.
Ed. Note: The October issue will
feature a full tribute to Willis' life and career.
‚óŹ

Photo by John Seakwood.

Gordon Willis, ASC, 1931-2014



American Cinematographer - August 2014

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of American Cinematographer - August 2014

Contents
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - Cover1
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - Cover2
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - 1
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - 2
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - Contents
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - 4
American Cinematographer - August 2014 - 5
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