Often called “The Prince of Darkness” for his tendency to artfully cloak onscreen characters in ominous shadows, cinematographer Gordon Willis was the closest thing Hollywood had to a Rembrandt. His playful visual style, daring use of chiaroscuro, and seemingly effortless ability to conjure a mood of unsettling paranoia made him the ideal Director of Photography for the 1970s — a glorious filmmaking decade when Technicolor artifice was swept aside for New Hollywood naturalism.
Whether working with Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather saga, Alan J. Pakula on his dizzying Watergate-era conspiracy thrillers All The President’s Men and The Parallax View, or Woody Allen in his delirious run of romantic comedies like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis, who died on May 18 at age 82, not only pushed the boundaries on how movies could look, but also how we, as moviegoers, looked at them.
Willis was born into the movies in 1931: His father was a make-up artist at Warner Bros. And while serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, Willis worked in motion picture unit before entering the Mad Men-era world of advertising and documentary filmmaking. His career as a cinematographer began with 1970’s End of the Road and ran through 1997’s The Devil’s Own, packing a staggering number of unforgettable and undisputed classics between those two bookends. Looking at his resume today, at all of those years choreographing the delicate dance of light and shadow, it’s shocking — almost perverse really — that he was only nominated for an Oscar twice (for Woody Allen’s 1984 newsreel lark Zelig and 1991’s Corleone coda The Godfather: Part III). The Academy, no doubt making up for its repeated sins of omission, handed him an honorary Oscar in 2010.