Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1931. Education: Attended Manhasset High School, New York. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Air Force as a photographer in the early 1950s. Family: Married; three children. Career: After Air Force, assistant cameraman and photographer on documentaries and commercials; 1969—first film as cinematographer, End of the Road ; 1977—first of several films for Woody Allen, Annie Hall .
Films as Cinematographer:
End of the Road (Avakian)
Loving (Kershner); The Landlord (Ashby); The People Next Door (Greene)
Little Murders (Arkin); Klute (Pakula)
The Godfather (Coppola); Bad Company (Benton); Up the Sandbox (Kershner)
The Paper Chase (Bridges)
The Parallax View (Pakula); The Godfather, Part II (Coppola)
The Drowning Pool (Rosenberg)
All the President's Men (Pakula)
Annie Hall (Allen); September 30, 1955 ( 9/30/55 ) (Bridges)
Interiors (Allen); Comes a Horseman (Pakula)
Stardust Memories (Allen); Windows (+ d)
Pennies from Heaven (Ross)
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (Allen)
Broadway Danny Rose (Allen)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen); Perfect (Bridges); The Money Pit (Benjamin)
The Pick-Up Artist (Toback)
Bright Lights, Big City (Bridges)
The Godfather, Part III (Coppola); Presumed Innocent (Pakula)
Malice (H. Becker)
The Devil's Own (Pakula)
By WILLIS: articles—
On The Godfather in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1971.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September and October 1978.
Seminar in Cinema Canada (Montreal), September 1983.
Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers , by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1994.
On WILLIS: articles—
Take One (Montreal), no. 2, 1978.
Stevenson, J., in New Yorker , 16 October 1978.
Filme (Berlin), no. 6, 1980.
Goodhill, D., on Manhattan in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1982.
Films and Filming (London), December 1982.
Maslin, Janet, in New York Times , 1 August 1983.
Film Comment (New York), March/April 1984.
McDonough, Tom, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1986.
American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1986.
Variety (New York), 24/30 October 1994.
* * *
At a time in film history when cinematographers are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention and credit for their contributions to the art of filmmaking, Gordon Willis has emerged as one of the screen's most gifted and creative cameramen. Working closely with his directors, Willis manages in film after film to create a visual style that is uniquely suited to the story's thematic intentions. His work on such widely varied films as The Godfather , Annie Hall , All the President's Men , and Zelig has helped establish him as a cinematographer able to translate a director's vision into a physical reality while still planting his own particular stamp on a film's visual style.
The son of a Hollywood makeup man, Willis initially considered a career as an actor before an early interest in photography and the theater led him into behind-the-scenes jobs involving scenery and stage lighting. After a brief stint working on documentaries and television commercials, Willis began his career as a cinematographer on feature films with End of the Road , and was soon earning critical acclaim for his work on such films as Klute , All the President's Men and the first two Godfather films. In each of these pictures, the photography takes its cue from the mood of the story.
Klute , a hard-edged psychological thriller, has a chilly, dark, claustrophobic style, while All the President's Men shifts between the bright fluorescent lights of the Washington Post newsroom to the shadowy settings of Woodward and Bernstein's meetings with the informant known as "Deep Throat." The Godfather films make use of muted colors, richly photographed and darkly lit, to evoke the secretive, somber atmosphere of the criminal underworld. The Godfather, Part II contrasts this style with the sunny scenes of Vito Corleone's childhood in Sicily and the golden and sepia tones of his days as a young immigrant in New York City. Both of the Godfather films received Best Picture Oscars (as did Annie Hall in 1977) and All the President's Men was a Best Picture nominee, yet Willis himself was not nominated for a cinematography Oscar until Zelig in 1983. It is an oversight that has been a source of great controversy, with Willis's admirers maintaining that his resolutely east coast-based career has led the Hollywood establishment to snub him as an outsider.
Annie Hall began Willis's long and mutually profitable collaboration with Woody Allen, who has utilized the cinematographer's talents on eight films so far. Annie Hall contrasts the warm, glowing scenes of Annie and Alvy's New York romance with the slightly overexposed glare of the film's California scenes, while Manhattan is a richly textured black-and-white paean to the beauty and diversity of the city itself. In Interiors and Stardust Memories , Willis creates echoes of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, using stark whites in the former to convey the emotional sterility of the troubled Bergmanesque family that is the focus of the film, and a harsh, almost surrealistic black and white in the latter, which many critics have labeled Allen's 8? The hazy golds and browns of A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy capture the bucolic quality of the film's witty merry-go-round of romances, while the wisecracking show-business fairy tale of Broadway Danny Rose is enhanced by Willis's gritty blacks and whites. The Purple Rose of Cairo 's Depression-era setting is conveyed in the film's subdued, washed-out tones, a look which also comments on the bleak reality of the heroine's life. The pair's most remarkable collaborative achievement, however, is Zelig , Allen's fictional mock-documentary. Imitating the style and tone of early newsreels, Allen and Willis "aged" their own film stock by scratching and marking its surface, matching their footage seamlessly with actual newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s. In several astonishing shots, Willis superimposes Allen's character, Leonard Zelig, onto the older footage, creating the impression that Zelig is actually a part of the newsreels and is conversing with well-known historical figures.
Willis has directed a film of his own, Windows , which drew mixed notices, but his true talents lie in his ability to translate a director's concepts into precise and compelling visual terms. He has stated that his job is to "make movies with directors . . . ultimately it's their idea that I'm executing." In Willis's case, however, the execution is often one of the most creative aspects of the film itself.
In 1993, the critically acclaimed film Visions of Light examined 26 leading directors of photography, one of whom was Gordon Willis.
—Janet Lorenz, updated by David Levine