Influential cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose photography for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” series and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” helped define the look of 1970s cinema, died of cancer Sunday in Falmouth, Mass. He was 82.
Willis was known as the Prince of Darkness for his artful use of shadows, and served as cinematographer or director of photography on seminal 1970s films including Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men” and James Bridges’ “The Paper Chase.”
For years, cinephiles were shocked that he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for his unique approach. Two nominations finally came, in 1983 for “Zelig” and 1990 for “The Godfather, Part III,” and he then received an honorary Academy award in 2009 at the first Governor’s Awards ceremony for his “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”
His long collaboration with Woody Allen included shooting “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Zelig.” Hal Ashby hired Willis for his first film, “The Landlord,” and during the 1970s he shot pics such as “Bad Company,” “The Drowning Pool,” “Up the Sandbox” and “Little Murders.” In later years, he worked on “Malice,” “The Pick-Up Artist” and “The Money Pit” and Bridges’ “Perfect” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Regarding his work on “The Godfather,” Variety wrote in 1997, “Among “The Godfather’s” many astonishments, the photography by Gordon Willis — a rich play with light and shadow — confirmed Willis’ genius but was especially striking as an extension of Francis Ford Coppola’s creative intelligence. ” Coppola once said, “He has a natural sense of structure and beauty, not unlike a Renaissance artist.”
He faced resistance at first to not showing Marlon Brando’s eyes, purposely obscuring the lighting to suggest the family’s corruption. “There were times when we didn’t want the audience to see what was going on in there and then subtly, you let them see into his soul for a while,” Willis famously said.
His black-and-white photography for “Manhattan” made it one of cinema’s most visually arresting films. Roger Ebert wrote of “Manhattan,” “All of these locations and all of these songs would not have the effect they do without the widescreen black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. This is one of the best-photographed movies ever made… Some of the scenes are famous just because of Willis’ lighting. For example, the way Isaac and Mary walk through the observatory as if they’re strolling among the stars or on the surface of the moon. Later, as their conversation gets a little lost, Willis daringly lets them disappear into darkness, and then finds them again with just a sliver of side-lighting.”
Born in New York City, his father worked as a make-up artist at Warner Brothers, and though Willis was originally interested in acting, lighting and stage design, he later turned to photography. While serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, he worked in the motion picture unit and then worked in advertising and documentaries. His first feature was X-rated “End of the Road” in 1970, and his last, Pakula’s “The Devil’s Own” in 1997. He also directed a film, “Windows,” in 1979.
He is survived by his wife, Helen; son Gordon Jr., a cinematographer; son Timothy, daughter Susan; and five grandchildren.
Watch an interview where he talks about some of the notable films he shot below.