Glance over the list of recent recipients of the American Society of Cinematographers’ lifetime achievement award and a pattern quickly emerges.
The org has been systematically honoring the great cinematographers of the 1960s and ’70s who changed the look and style of American movies: Michael Chapman, Bill Butler, Laszlo Kovacs, William Fraker, Victor Kemper, Vilmos Zsigmond and Vittorio Storaro.
But a close scrutiny of their filmographies reveals another pattern: Most did their best work 10, 20, even 30 years ago.
Only Storaro, who’s filming “Zapata” for Alfonso Arau, and Zsigmond, who just completed Woody Allen’s latest, seem to be getting choice assignments. (Conrad Hall, 1994’s lifetime honoree, also was in top demand until his death last year.)
This begs the question: Why doesn’t the ASC follow the example of the American Film Institute and give the career kudo to younger talents who are still at the top of their game, if not more influential?
There’s no shortage of worthy candidates, including Roger Deakins, Chris Menges, Robert Richardson and Janusz Kaminski, most of whom figured into the current Oscar race.
To their credit, d.p.’s seem resistant to Hollywood’s pervasive ageism; even though the average age of the last eight lifetime honorees is 71, most are still working. But their recent credits are dominated by formulaic comedies or standard action fare.
“There’s definitely an old boys’ network at the ASC,” says one female cinematographer. “There aren’t many women d.p.’s period, and there are even fewer in the ASC. As a result, the awards they give out are very predictable. It’s not that the people who get the lifetime achievement award don’t deserve it, most are incredible talents, but it does illustrate the lack of diversity.
“But it goes beyond women, it’s an organization dominated by older white males. Maybe acclaimed young Hispanic d.p.’s like Rodrigo Prieto will change that.”
The ASC makes no secret of its predilection for awarding distinguished older white men; it’s hardwired into the org’s decision-making process. The lifetime achievement and other special ASC awards are not voted on by the general membership but selected by a 33-person award committee, which includes five women (only one of whom is a d.p.) and a number of old lions who have already won the career laurel, such as Kemper, Kovacs and committee chairman Owen Roizman. Nominations are made by ASC members.
Over a series of meetings, the committee reviews the nominees’ credits and discusses their qualifications. “People make impassioned pleas for their favorites and then it’s put to a vote,” says ASC president Richard Crudo. “There are a lot of strong opinions. It will go sometimes three or four ballots before a full agreement is reached.”
A nominee’s work isn’t the sole criteria. The committee favors candidates who have supported the ASC over the years and participated in its activities. “If it comes down to two guys, we say, ‘Hey, this guy’s done a lot for this organization and we should take that into consideration,’ ” Roizman explains.
“Many times we won’t give the award to someone who is young,” says Zsigmond. “Vittorio Storaro’s name came up so many times and we kept saying, ‘Let’s wait, he’s not old enough yet! He’s got a lot more movies coming in.’ Finally we gave it to him four years ago.” Storaro was 59 at the time.
Butler explains the rationale for this: “You need to wait 20 years or so to see if a person’s work still stands up. There are a lot of flavors of the month right now, guys getting work because they’ve twisted the something or other on the color chart. But down the line will they be forgotten or will their work last?”
As for why even the greatest cinematographers’ resumes seem to thin out in their later years, one d.p. who asked to remain anonymous, observes: “People aren’t calling a lot of those old guys. They’re calling younger cinematographers. It was the same for a long, long time then everything changed. The younger cinematographers are cheaper and there’s new technology that producers mistakenly think the older guys won’t be able to handle.”
Crudo believes it’s not so much a matter of changing technology as changing fashion. “All those guys who had their heyday back in the late ’60s and ’70s and maybe the beginning of the ’80s … that kind of filmmaking is gone,” he says. “The studios are not making those kinds of movies in great quantity anymore, so you have a lot of d.p.’s chasing after the few choice projects.”
Overlooked candidates for ASC’s Life Achievement kudo
Michael Ballhaus:Key d.p. for Fassbinder and later-period Scorsese (“GoodFellas,” “Gangs of New York”)
Roger Deakins: Coen brothers’ d.p. since “Barton Fink”; also shot “Kundun”
Caleb Deschanel:Shot “The Black Stallion,” “The Natural,” “The Right Stuff” and “A Woman Under the Influence”
Chris Menges:Oscar-winning d.p. (“The Mission,” “The Killing Fields”) who also shot “Dirty Pretty Things”
Robbie Muller:Wim Wenders’ peak-period lenser (“The American Friend,” “Paris, Texas”) who also shot “Down by Law,” “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark”
Robert Richardson:Oliver Stone’s high-watermark cinematographer (“JFK,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Platoon”)
Philippe Rousselot:Oscar-winning d.p. of “A River Runs Through It,” as well as “Henry & June,” “The Emerald Forest”