There are few Oscar categories in which foreign artists have made a stronger impact than in lensing, a testament to Hollywood’s openness to creative influences from all over the world.
Over the last 30 years, more than half of the Oscar-winning cameramen (yes, they are all men) have been foreign-trained, including Pasqualino De Santis (“Romeo and Juliet”), Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) and Philippe Rousselot (“A River Runs Through It”).
What’s most encouraging about this international dimension is that only six of the Oscar lensers from l966 to the present have received the award for movies that have also won for best picture.
Hence, Mikael Salomon won an Oscar for the underwater saga “The Abyss” (l989) and John Toll won for the historical melodrama “Legends of the Fall” (l994), two movies that were not even nominated for best picture.
Similarly, when “Red” (1994) proved ineligible for the foreign-language Oscar category (it was a French film, submitted by Switzerland and directed by a Pole), undeterred Academy members in three branches nominated the film for direction (Krzystof Kieslowski), original screenplay (Krzystof Piesiewicz and Kieslowski) and cinematography (Piotr Sobocinski).
While the “foreign factor” has been evident in almost every decade, the lensers’ nationalities have changed, reflecting new trends and fashions in cinematography as well as the stature of the lensers’ national cinema in the American movie market. Foreign cinematographers made a sporadic appearance in the l930s, like Tony Gaudio (nee Gaetano), who won an Oscar in l936 for “Anthony Adverse.”
The German and Austrian emigres who arrived in Hollywood in the l920s and l930s (Lubitsch, Von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann) tended to work with American lensers for the most part.
The most “patriotic” decade in the cinematography branch was the l940s – the war era. Following the first color cinematography Oscar, given to Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan for the 1939 “Gone With the Wind,” most of the awards in the l940s (in both the black-and-white and color divisions) were granted to American artists.
Arthur Miller received three Oscars in that decade: “How Green Was My Valley” (1941 – the year of “Citizen Kane”), “The Song of Bernadette” (l943), and “Anna and the King of Siam” (l946). His respected colleague, Leon Shamroy, also won three Oscars, all in the color league: “The Black Swan,” “Wilson” and “Leave Her to Heaven” (1942, 1944 and 1945, respectively).
The British influence became apparent in l947 when Jack Cardiff won the color cinematography Oscar for “Black Narcissus.” And it continued to be present in the l950s and l960s, with Jack Hildyard (“The Bridge on the River Kwai” in l957), and Freddie Francis (“Sons and Lovers,” l960; Francis also won again, nearly 30 years later, for the 1989 “Glory”).
Brit master Freddie A. Young won three Oscars for David Lean’s historical epics, all shot in “exotic” locales (“Lawrence of Arabia,” l962; “Doctor Zhivago,” l965; and “Ryan’s Daughter,” l970).
The work of Swedish ace lenser Sven Nykvist in Ingmar Bergman’s movies was well known in the l950s, but he didn’t receive his first Oscar nomination or award until l973, for “Cries and Whispers.” His second Oscar arrived precisely a decade later, in l983, for another Bergman masterpiece, “Fanny and Alexander,” which also won the foreign language award.
East Euro wave
Eastern European lensers began to leave their mark in the l960s and l970s, with Yugoslav-born (of Hungarian descent) Ernest Laszlo nabbing eight nominations and winning an Oscar for “Ship of Fools” (l965).
Hungarian Vilmos Zsigmond fled to the U.S. during the l956 uprising with fellow student Laszlo Kovacs. Both gained prominence during the 1970s in the States, with Zsigmond gaining nominations for several films and winning an Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (l977).
The same decade also embraced Spanish-born, Cuban-trained Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (l978), which relied on natural light and was based on Almendros’ study of period art. (A star cinematographer of international repute, Almendros worked with Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Robert Benton; the Martin Scorsese “Life Lessons” episode of “New York Stories” was his last major work before his death in 1992.)
Italians’ late surge
Italians were not represented in the Oscar contest until the late l960s, when Pasqualino De Santis won for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” (l968). But they more than made up for it since then, with the work of three-time winner Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” l979; “Reds,” l981; “The Last Emperor,” l987). In l979, Bob Fosse imported Giuseppe Rotunno to give the “Fellini look” to “All That Jazz,” a personal film influenced by “8-1/2.”
The last decade has been even more international than previous ones, with two Oscars for British lenser Chris Menges (“The Killing Fields,” l984; “The Mission,” l986); Frenchman Philippe Rousselot (“A River Runs Through It,” l992); and Polish Janusz Kaminski (“Schindler’s List,” l993). Reflecting the recent popularity of Chinese films in the U.S., the Academy also cited the work of Asian cinematographers Gu Changwei (“Farewell My Concubine,” l993) and Lu Yue (“Shanghai Triad,” l995).
In the past, one of the great ironies of the visual medium of filmmaking was that cameramen were seldom in the limelight. Lensers were sort of invisible performers, whose work was transparent to the audience and didn’t call much attention to itself, conforming to the strictures of the seamless, invisible Classic Hollywood Cinema. But the New American Cinema of the late l960s and l970s – and the European masterpieces of the l950s and l960s – brought to the surface the works of first-rate lensers, who were perceived as artists deserving as much public and peer recognition as the filmmakers they collaborated with.
The era of the international star lensers – the auteurist cameramen -got a special boost when Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece, “The Conformist,” was unveiled in l970. The visual grandeur of this epic, orchestrated by Vittorio Storaro, was so integral to the narrative – and provided such visceral and emotional pleasure – that it brought accolades to its master.
As often is the case in Hollywood, great artists – directors, movie stars and even technicians – are quickly imported. Storaro worked with Francis Ford Coppola on “Apocalypse Now” (l979), for which he won his first Oscar, and then with Warren Beatty on two big-budget movies: “Reds” (1981), his second Oscar, and “Dick Tracy” (l990), for which he netted a nomination; he garnered a third Oscar for Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” which swept the 1987 awards.
The most recent example of an effective cooptation is “Red’s” Piotr Sobocinski, who in l996 lensed two very different features: the blockbuster thriller “Ransom” and the emotional family drama “Marvin’s Room.”
Contrary to popular notion, great cinematographers insist that their work has little to do with how the film looks and everything to do with how the film feels – or rather how the film makes the audience feel.
Does the cinematography evoke the look of the era? Does it capture the mood of the story? Does it convey the changing emotions of the characters? Storaro was reportedly offended when a journalist in Cannes told him that “Apocalypse Now” was the most beautiful movie he had ever seen. No doubt, it was meant as a compliment, but the Italian artist would have much rather preferred his work to be described as haunting, disturbing, even perverse – the tones evoked by Coppola in the story.
Like other Oscar categories, the cinematography branch abounds with its own idiosyncrasies. Prominent American lenser Gregg Toland, who did revolutionary work in “Citizen Kane” (l941) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (l946), won for neither film. His only Oscar trophy is for William Wyler’s “Wuthering Heights” (l939).
And a major talent like Gordon Willis failed to receive nominations for the first two “Godfather” movies, or, for that matter, for his highly original lensing of Woody Allen’s comedy classics, the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Manhattan” (1979).
Some believe that Gordon’s lack of recognition from his branch had more to do with his New York address than his technical skills, which may or may not be the case. But the fact remains that Willis has received only two nominations, both rather late in his career: for Woody Allen’s black-and-white “Zelig” (l983) and for Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part III” (l990).