Gordon Willis Trailblazing Cinematographer
Michael Yada/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

With great risk often comes great reward. That’s what the filmmakers behind such classics as “Citizen Kane,” “The French Connection” and “The Godfather” — three movies that challenged established modes of lighting, framing and perspective — learned the hard way.

The notoriously gruff cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died May 18 at age 82 from cancer, certainly didn’t make it any easier on “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, who didn’t have the support of Paramount brass from the beginning and found himself continually at odds with his director of photography.

And those early rushes on the film only exacerbated the matter.

“(Willis) was trying something new,” explains Peter Bart, VP in charge of production at the time and studio chief Robert Evans’ right-hand man. “Many of the takes were too dark and couldn’t be used. So there was a ruckus about it and part of it was caused by me because neither Gordon nor Francis were of the sort who communicated. Francis was paranoid and hated Bob Evans so much that he did not confide in him. And Gordon Willis sure as hell wasn’t going to explain himself; his attitude was ‘Fuck you guys.’ ”

“The Godfather”

The film — characterized by its oft-imitated sepia tones, shadowy interiors and overhead lighting so severe it would often conceal the eyes of its title character, played by Marlon Brando — would end up having a transformative effect on the director and d.p.’s career, and helped advance the language of cinema.

“It’s common knowledge among his peers, film critics and cinephiles that (Willis) stands beside Griffith, Welles and Ford as one of the great originators,” said Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. “Just as those men did before him, he not only changed the way movies look, he changed the way we look at movies.”

Or, as d.p. Michael Chapman (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”), his camera operator on a half dozen films including “The Godfather” and “Klute,” told Variety: “Cinematography could be looked at in two ways: Before Gordy and after Gordy — he changed everything.”

Willis, a rock-solid technician who started out shooting commercials and industrial films, wasn’t afraid to stand his ground, a characteristic that set him apart from the mostly deferential pros in his field. “A cinematographer does have to know when to argue — even fight at times,” he told the Film and Digital Times. “I’m not indiscriminate, but I don’t like living in a fool’s paradise.”

Willis was the d.p. not only of the “Godfather” trilogy, but the peak-period efforts of Alan Pakula, whose own trilogy of American paranoia and the abuse of power — “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men” — benefitted from Willis’ unwavering eye.

“All the Presidents Men”

Like Coppola and Pakula before him, Woody Allen would be taken more seriously as a filmmaker once Willis gave his movies — including “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” (shot in glorious B&W) and “Stardust Memories” — an added dimension of mood and texture.

“Gordon was so brilliant. He would say to me, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter if it’s very, very dark there and you don’t see anything. They’ll still think it’s funny,’” Allen said of their initial collaboration on “Annie Hall.” “My maturity in films began with my association with Gordon Willis.”

Despite the reverence for Willis held by his peers, he represented the shock of the New Hollywood in the ’70s, and the industry’s old guard would deprive him of an Oscar nomination until Allen’s 1983 film “Zelig.”

“Manhattan”

The ASC, which didn’t start handing out awards until 1987, would honor him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, and the Academy would follow suit with an Honorary Oscar in 2009. “I’ve always had an opportunity to do what I want, the way I want, and I’ve always worked with people who’ve given me that opportunity,” he said at the podium.

Willis might have been dubbed “The Prince of Darkness” but it’s not a rep for which he wanted to be known. “I suppose I have a reputation for not using a lot of light,” he said in 2006, “but a lot of times I’ve used quite a bit of light. I try to make the punishment fit the crime. I’m not a formula thinker.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more