In an industry that more often than not celebrates mediocrity over true genius, Gordon Willis occupies a category separate from and above all others. It’s common knowledge among the informed that he stands beside D. W. Griffith, “Billy” Bitzer, John Ford, Orson Welles, and maybe a few others as one of the industry’s great originators. Just as those legendary figures did before him, he not only changed the way movies look, he changed the way we look at movies.
Though Gordon made his place in history with what are probably his best known films, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II,” the pattern for what he would achieve had been put to effect in a number of smaller, less heralded movies he shot during the previous couple of years. To look closely at any of them is to witness the evolution of a tremendously gifted artist: “End of the Road,” “Loving,” “The Landlord,” “The People Next Door,” “Little Murders.”
His work in each stands as a farewell to the stilted, old-fashioned style of cinematography that had dominated the mainstream to that point. But rather than simply being dismissive or indulging the era’s youthful trend toward the self-conscious or the sloppy, his exacting approach brought a freshness to the screen — free of irony, no less — that caught everyone off guard. If Gordon had gone only that far in his development, he would still be memorable to the ages. By the time he got around to shooting up the streets of New York with Coppola, Brando and the rest of the mob a few years later, he was ready to set a remarkable standard for filmmaking’s second Golden Era.
While it’s impossible to overstate his influence regarding the look of everything that has been important in features and television during the past 40 years, the true measure of his achievements is this: You cannot have a serious conversation about cinematography without mentioning his name.
Two other talents of similar caliber — Conrad Hall, ASC and Owen Roizman, ASC — came to ascension at the same time, but it was Gordon who obliterated all that was traditional and stilted about the way movies were previously staged and lit.
Simplicity and relativity were the terms he most often used in deconstructing his work. Occasionally, if you were fortunate to have spent some time around him, as I was during my career as an assistant cameraman in the 1980s, you might hear him go deeper. As a consummate technician, pretension was anathema to him. Nonetheless, he revealed a great deal of himself when he explained the reasoning behind why he had done something a certain way: “It just felt right.”
Sinatra, the Beatles, Derek Jeter… when we see the genuine item, we know it. Like them, Gordon made it all look so easy. I assure you — it was not. His loss is a momentous one, and the world should take serious note of it. If it’s safe to say there will never be another Rembrandt, I have an even smarter bet for you: There will never be another Gordon Willis.