HOLLYWOOD — The year Jack Cardiff started in movies, World War I ended, Picasso painted “The Bathers,” the Spanish flu epidemic took more than 25 million lives, equal voting rights were granted to all British women over the age of 30 and talkies were yet a decade away.
More than 80 years after he first walked on a movie set in 1918 at age 4 as an actor in “My Son, My Son,” Cardiff is receiving his second Academy Award, this time an honorary statuette.
Honorary awards may be bestowed for exceptional distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding services to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Past recipients in the past decade include directors Andrzej Wajda, Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Stanley Donen, actors Deborah Kerr and Kirk Douglas and animator Chuck Jones.
It marks the first time a cinematographer is getting an honorary Oscar (shooter George Alfred Mitchell received an honorary statuette in 1952 for designing the Mitchell camera). Cardiff won the Oscar for the color photography on “Black Narcissus” (1947), and was nominated for “War and Peace” (1956) and “Fanny” (1961), as well as directing “Sons and Lovers” (1960).
“I’m thrilled and honored and think it’s a wonderful idea that they gave it to a technician,” Cardiff says from his home in England. “Cinematographers are essentially technicians, but if you put on an act, you know, they call you an artist.”
The board of governors of the Acad feel no act is necessary in Cardiff’s case.
“Jack Cardiff is one of the greatest visual artists ever to work in film,” says Academy president Robert Rehme.
Adds Acad visual effects governor Bill Taylor: “(He was a master of light and color, a tireless experimenter who made Technicolor as subtle, as eloquent as a brush in the hands of one of the old masters.”
The 70 films on which Cardiff was director of photography include Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1947) and “The Red Shoes” (1948), John Huston’s “The African Queen” (1952), Alfred Hitchcock’s “Under Capricorn” (1949), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954), Laurence Olivier’s “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) and John Irvin’s “The Dogs of War” (1980).
As a director, Cardiff helmed “My Geisha” (1962), with Shirley MacLaine; “The Lion” (1962), with William Holden; 1965’s “Young Cassidy” (taking over from John Ford), with Rod Taylor; “The Long Ships” (1965), with Sidney Poitier; and the gritty African train heist adventure “Dark of the Sun” (1968), with Taylor and Jim Brown.
At 87, Cardiff will be starting his next film as a d.p. in April: “Sabina Anima,” about a Russian Jewish woman’s wanton illicit affair with psychoanalysis pioneer Carl Gustav Jung. One of Jack’s sons, Nathan Cardiff, is co-producing the film, which is based on an actual story.
“She becomes a brilliant psychoanalyst herself, and I’m delighted to be photographing it,” Jack says. “It’s filled with strange lighting effects and weird shadows. Can’t wait.”
Born in 1914 into a British Vaudeville family, Cardiff had a vagabond childhood, living in a different town each week, and became enamored of the works of Rembrandt and other painters.
At Alexander Korda’s London Films, Cardiff became a production runner in 1929, then a clapper boy, assistant cameraman and, eventually, a camera operator throughout the 1930s, working on Rene Clair’s “The Ghost Goes West” (1935); William Cameron Menzies’ “Things to Come” (1936); “As You Like It” (1936), with Olivier; Zoltan Korda’s “The Four Feathers” (1939); and Powell and Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943).
“The great American cinematographers were my heroes,” Cardiff says, “and Korda had some of them working for him. I was an operator on ‘As You Like It’ and (renowned d.p.) Harold Rosson was sick one day, so I took over and they had (d.p.) Lee Garmes come over from another set at lunch to advise.
“I was using 200 lights to do a forest scene, and they said, ‘Mr. Garmes, Mr. Cardiff has put a few lights on.’ And Garmes said, ‘Leave him go; it looks splendid.’ I’ll always be thankful to Lee Garmes for saying that.
“Michael Powell gave me my break. I had been working second unit, photographing ashtrays. One day I was lighting animal trophy heads on a wall and he said, ‘I’m looking for a cinematographer.’
The film was “Stairway to Heaven” aka “A Matter of Life and Death,” a fantasy starring David Niven and Kim Hunter that’s central to the cult status of the Powell-Pressburger alliance.
Cardiff shared one of the greatest on-location movie-making adventures of all time in the Belgian Congo on “The African Queen,” with Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn and producer Sam Spiegel.
“It was a fantastic adventure, but a horror to film,” Cardiff says. “Almost all of us got dysentery because the houseboat we were living on had no filter for the drinking water, but Huston and Bogie didn’t get sick. Water wasn’t what they were used to drinking.”
Cardiff’s favorite of his films is “Sons and Lovers,” the adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence coming-of-age classic starring Dean Stockwell and Trevor Howard, in his only Oscar-nominated role. Cardiff won the Golden Globe for director for that film, and was named director of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review in addition to an Oscar nom.
“It was a triumph over adversity,” Cardiff says. “The producer (Jerry Wald) never came to England. The office man sent by the studio wanted to show the Americans back in the States how cheaply we could make the film. Nothing was easy. We battled every day, every inch of the way but we got wonderful notices.
“I’ve always enjoyed Trevor tremendously. Quite an actor. Once I was coming in for a close-up and he was supposed to shout the line. He said, ‘I’ll whisper it.’ And he was right.”
The hyperviolent and muscular “Dark of the Sun,” about mercenaries involved in diamond stealing amid the overthrow of the Belgian Congo in 1960, was based on a Wilbur Smith novel, but it contained many elements of reality from Cardiff’s journeys.
“I went all over the Belgian Congo and saw a lot of the real thing: decapitations, slaughter,” Cardiff says. “When the film came out in England, we were the ones who were killed by the press. But we put in perhaps a quarter of the carnage that I saw.
“A few years before that, I was called in from Switzerland for ‘Young Cassidy’ and John Ford had already left, ailing, for the States. I did a lot of good things on it, and it ended up with (under five) minutes shot by John Ford, and the rest by me. The critics said, ‘There are some very good things in this movie, obviously the work of John Ford.’ So, you know, the press says whatever it wants to say.”
Cardiff has been getting his due lately. In the last year, he was named to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace and was bestowed with a doctorate of art by the London College of Art and with a doctorate of letters from Bradford University.
He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Society of Cinematographers in 1995 and the Intl. Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1994.
But on Oscar night, the world’s biggest stage awaits him.
“I have a few things I’d like to say, and I trust they’ll let me,” he says, not tipping his hand.