Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Prince of Darkness is gone

First, a clip:

Now a homage: Gordon Willis, who shot all three of "The Godfather" movies and is the greatest cinematographer never to win an Academy Award, died Sunday at 82. He shot 10 of the best-looking movies from the 1970s, from "Klute" through "Manhattan," and he became famous for using just enough light to illuminate faces and a few other details in a darkened room. (Hence his nickname, "The Prince of Darkness.") Yet not one of those 10 earned him an Oscar nomination.

He seldom got a chance to work in black and white (who does nowadays?), yet look how delicately he lit the most romantic scene in Woody Allen's "Manhattan:"

Willis worked into his mid-60s and retired in 1997, troubled by ill health, after "The Devil's Own." He was finally nominated for an Oscar in 1984 for "Zelig" (where he found a way to insert Allen into historical scenes with real people) and in 1991 for "Godfather III." He won an honorary award in 2010 for "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion."

So why did he never win an Oscar voted by his peers? Rumor always had it that he was hard to work with, demanding in his collaborations (though Allen and Francis Ford Coppola used him multiple times) and not much of a mentor to young artists or a chummy guy with others in his field. As only cinematographers can nominate cinematographers, that's a handicap.

If the Oscars were purely about skill, he would have won a handful. But as they're Hollywood's equivalent of an election for high school prom king, he didn't fare well in that kind of popularity contest. No matter: His beautifully detailed work will speak for him as long as movies can be seen on a big screen.