Cinematographer. Nationality: American (naturalised, 1963). Born: Budapest, 14 May 1933; credited as Leslie Kovacs on early films. Education: Attended Budapest Film School, graduated with an M.A. 1956. Family: One son, Imre, one daughter, Julia. Career: 1956—escaped to Austria during Hungarian Revolution with the photographer Vilmos Zsigmond, then to the United States, 1957; worked as still photographer and in TV laboratory; first U.S. film credits in mid-1960s; freelance cinematographer for motion pictures and commercials; lecturer at various film schools; member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; member of American Society of Cinematographers. Awards: Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; Hawaii International Film Festival Cinematography Award, for body of work, 1998; Worldfest Flagstaff Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999. Address: Mirisch Agency Ste 700, 10100 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90067, U.S.A.
Hungarn in Flammen ( Revolt in Hungary ) (Erdelyi—doc) (co)
The Nasty Rabbit ( Spies A-Go-Go ) (James Landis) (asst, + ro); Mark of the Gun (Compo); The Notorious Fanny Hill (Stootsberry)
Hell's Angels on Wheels (Rush); Mondo Mod (Perry) (co); A Man Called Dagger (Rush); Targets (Bogdanovich); Blood of Dracula's Castle (Adamson); Rebel Rousers (Cohen)
Single Room Furnished (Cimber); Psych-Out (Rush); The Savage Seven (Rush); Hell's Blood Devils (Adamson—re-edited version: Smashing the Crime Syndicate ); Mark of the Gun
That Cold Day in the Park (Altman); Easy Rider (Hopper); A Day with the Boys (Gulager—short)
Getting Straight (Rush); Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson); Alex in Wonderland (Mazursky); The Marriage of a Young Stock-broker (Turman)
The Last Movie (Hopper); Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich—short); A Reflection of Fear (Fraker); The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich)
Pocket Money (Rosenberg); What's Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich); The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson); Steelyard Blues (Myerson) (co)
Slither (Zieff); Paper Moon (Bogdanovich)
Huckleberry Finn (Lee Thompson); For Pete's Sake (Yates); Freebie and the Bean (Rush)
Shampoo (Ashby); At Long Last Love (Bogdanovich)
Baby Blue Marine (Hancock); Harry and Walter Go to New York (Rydell); Nickelodeon (Bogdanovich); Family (Rydell)
New York, New York (Scorsese); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg) (co)
F.I.S.T. (Jewison); Paradise Alley (Stallone); The Last Waltz (Scorsese) (co)
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (Lester); The Runner Stumbles (Kramer); Heart Beat (Byrum); The Rose (Rydell) (co)
Inside Moves (R. Donner)
The Legend of the Lone Ranger (Fraker)
Frances (Clifford); The Toy (R. Donner)
Crackers (Malle); Ghostbusters (Reitman)
Legal Eagles (Reitman)
Little Nikita (Benjamin)
Say Anything . . . (Crowe)
Shattered ( The Plastic Nightmare ) (Petersen)
Radio Flyer (R. Donner); Ruby Cairo ( Deception ) (Clifford)
Sliver (Noyce) (co)
The Next Karate Kid (Cain); The Scout (Ritchie)
Copycat (Amiel); Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (Little)
My Best Friend's Wedding (Hogan)
Jack Frost (Miller)
Return to Me (Hunt); Miss Congeniality
The Time Travelers (Melchior) (cam)
The American Dreamer (Carson and Schiller)
Visions of Light (as Laszlo Kovacs)
Dialogue on Film (Beverly Hills, California), October 1974.
On F.I.S.T. in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1978.
Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), July 1978.
American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1979.
On The Runner Stumbles in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1979.
On The Legend of the Lone Ranger in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1981.
In Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers , by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.
Ecran Fantastique (Paris), December 1984.
Filmkultura (Budapest), vol. 25, no. 6, 1989.
"Multiple Keatons Add Up to a New Challenge for a DP of Many Faces," in Lighting Dimensions (Los Angeles), 1 June 1996.
Mitchell, George J., in Take One (Montreal), July/August 1970.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
McNicoll, D., in Cinema Canada (Montreal), October/November 1979.
Films and Filming (London), May 1980.
Goodwin, M., in Moving Image (San Francisco), March/April 1982.
Patterson, R., on Frances in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1983.
McCarthy, T., in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1984.
Lofficier, Randy, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1984.
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Born in Hungary, Laszlo Kovacs—sometimes billed early in his career as Leslie Kovacs or Art Radford—escaped to the West along with Vilmos Zsigmond, with whom he collaborated on a documentary about the 1956 Hungarian uprising and, later, Close Encounters of the Third Kind . It appears to have been a total coincidence that his name was used by Jean-Paul Belmondo as an alias in A Bout de Souffle , but this did give rise to the speculation—when he worked with movie buff Peter Bogdanovich on Targets and the documentary Directed by John Ford —that Bogdanovich was functioning as his own director of photography and assuming an in-joke pseudonym. Like Zsigmond, although to a lesser extent, Kovacs cut his teeth on marginal exploitation movies, such as The Notorious Fanny Hill . In his case, however, the transition from drive-in underground to the mainstream was fairly straightforward and represented no particular change of style. Kovacs's first attention-getting credit was for Easy Rider , which was an obvious extension of his work on the late 1960s cycle of biker exploitation movies, especially The Savage Seven and Hell's Angels on Wheels . These were directed by Richard Rush, with whom Kovacs also worked on Psych-Out , a freeform hippie odyssey with Jack Nicholson that prefigured many of the countercultural aspects of Dennis Hopper's movie and also the kind of subculture seaminess Kovacs would explore with Nicholson and Bob Rafelson in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens .
The most lasting associations of Kovacs's career—with Rush, Bogdanovich, and Easy Rider associate Rafelson—come from this period, when a group of filmmakers loosely clustered around Roger Corman and American International Pictures, spun off the stuff of youth exploitation—bikes, drugs, drop-outs—into the 1970s "road movie" and the kinetic psychedelia of Hollywood's flirtation with pop art. The photographic hallmarks of Kovacs's work are images of rebel youths—Hopper, Nicholson, Peter Fonda—with their hair long and beards unshaven, perched on gleaming bikes and traveling through the dusty western roads that had replaced the trails ridden by Hopalong Cassidy or John Ford's heroes. The psychedelic aspect led to various attempts to simulate drug-induced altered states of perception, and Kovacs shot, in Easy Rider and Psych-Out , more than his share of flashing lights, bleary wanderings, and cut-to-the-rhythm-ofthe-rock-soundtrack freak-outs. This specialty found him yoked to such commercially disastrous ventures as Robert Altman's psycho-drama That Cold Day in the Park , Rush's (not as embarrassing as most of its genre) "campus revolt" picture Getting Straight , Hopper's willful The Last Movie , and Paul Mazursky's cool-hippie Alex in Wonderland . It also allowed him to demonstrate a growing mastery of a visual technique that was at once loose enough to allow for the druggy improvisation of Hopper but formally neat enough to suggest the old Hollywood virtues Bogdanovich was aspiring to in Targets .
In the 1970s, Kovacs stuck by Bogdanovich, making the black-and-white images of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon work, turning in a perfectly acceptable simulation of Ross Hunter gloss for What's Up, Doc? , and filming black-and-white-in-color for the bizarre but increasingly impressive At Long Last Love . He was at a loss, however, with the prettified nostalgia of Nickelodeon and later failed to make Mask , with its bikers and deformed hero, look like anything as interesting as Hell's Angels on Wheels . The association also spilled over into shooting dud imitations of the genre trifles Bogdanovich usually managed to pull off, resulting in such credits as For Pete's Sake and Harry and Walter Go to New York .
Kovacs was becoming the photographic master of the roadside movie through his work for Rafelson, in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens , which mix tatty observation with a wry romantic pessimism, and found that this experience, plus all those hog-straddling Hell's Angel movies, equipped him for road movies as varied as Stuart Rosenberg's modern Western Pocket Money , Howard Zieff's seductive comic-caper Slither , Richard Rush's car-crash cop comedy Freebie and the Bean , Hal Ashby's Beverly Hills road movie Shampoo , and Spielberg's magical American odyssey, Close Encounters . Cars and motorbikes crop up constantly, and Kovacs has become adept at shooting scenes in diners and lay-bys, frequently catching some unexpected slice of Americana in the background.
His affinity for the landscape of the west, demonstrated in Easy Rider , The Last Picture Show , Pocket Money , and Close Encounters , was disappointingly betrayed by his only real Western credit, the lamentable The Legend of the Lone Ranger . Throughout the 1970s, Kovacs was on-call for major Hollywood figures, following Martin Scorsese from the glittering, hard-edged 1940s feel of New York, New York to the aptly AIP-ish fuzziness of The Last Waltz . He even formed an association with Sylvester Stallone—like Scorsese, another Corman graduate—on the star's ambitious but inconsistent post- Rocky attempts to be a blue-collar artist in F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley . Kovacs later found himself involved with such self-consciously "sincere" works as The Runner Stumbles and Frances but, unlike the more prettifying Zsigmond, he has never really become "respectable" enough for Academy Award consideration. Like Rafelson, Bogdanovich, Rush, and Hopper, Kovacs is essentially a 1970s talent, and his major works are all clustered around the beginning of that decade. Despite his contribution to Close Encounters , he never quite got the knack for the large-scale fantasies which predominated in the 1980s, taking Hollywood away from the rough-edged observation in which he specialized. Considering his work on Ghostbusters , a mainly successful entertainment, one is struck by how drab the film looks , as if Kovacs had been ordered not to let his visual imagination swamp the special effects or the wisecracks, and it is notable that he was the only major contributor to this box-office hit who was not involved in he equally anonymous-looking Ghostbusters 2 .
In the early 1990s, Kovacs was reduced to shaky assignments such as Ruby Cairo and The Next Karate Kid , while in the second half of the decade he fared a little better with lightweight comedies such as My Best Friend's Wedding , Jack Frost , and Return to Me . Although Kovacs provided a steadying influence on these films, there are few signs in them of the cinematic quality and style with which he made his name in the 1970s. The current trend in Hollywood seems to be for movies with strong narratives, driven home with special effects. In such a climate, cinematographers like Kovacs, who excel at observational, descriptive filmmaking, have few opportunities to show off their skills. In the 1990s, only the flop Radio Flyer contained elements reminiscent of Kovacs' great days.
—Kim Newman, updated by Chris Routledge