Unsung Heroes: Gordon Willis, “Prince Of Darkness”

Gordon Willis (now retired) was one of the leading cinematographers to emerge from Hollywood’s new wave of the 1970’s and shake up the old system. Belatedly recognised with a lifetime achievement Academy award in 2009, it is a crime that, out of the 11 Oscar nominations for The Godfather (of which three were won) his own work was not recognised.

Willis was born in 1931, the son of a Hollywood make-up artist father and dancer mother. His father worked at Warner Brothers Brooklyn studio. Willis got the photography bug growing up and briefly considered a career as a fashion photographer, shooting models in New York’s Village area where he grew up. Giving this up as badly thought out plan, he joined the Documentary Motion Picture unit in military service during the Korean war. Afterwards, he became a cameraman, shooting commercials and documentaries back in New York, before drifting into Motion Pictures. His first job as D.P was on Aram Avakian’s On The Road. He went on to lens Hal Ashby’s debut feature The landlord in 1970, beginning a run of collaborations with exciting new directors: Alan J Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen – the last a long and fruitful working relationship over eight films.

His work on The Godfather earned him the nickname “The Prince Of Darkness” for using the bare minimum of lighting to suggest the corruption at the heart of the Corleone family’s American dream. He deliberately shielded Marlon Brando’s eyes. ” 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.”

Francis Ford Coppola said of his style: “He has a natural sense of structure and beauty not unlike a renaissance artist.” He’s the Caravaggio of cinema. Willis simply states it is a matter of relativity, of light and dark when needed. For The Godfather PtII, the vibrant heat of Cuba and the dusty poverty of Vito’s Sicilian origins are evocative contrasts to the shadowed, wood panelled deals done in Michael’s Lake Tahoe citadel. Amber, sepia tones for flashbacks to Vito as a young man in New York became highly influential too. Willis calls the Godfather films “Gangster Operas” – his work is equally instrumental in elevating them to the status of art above genre.

Annie Hall began his long collaboration with fellow New Yorker Woody Allen. It wasn’t until their film Zelig in 1984 that Willis was nominated for an Oscar. Zelig is a faux-documentary about the eponymous human chameleon, a blank slate who flits through momentous periods of early to mid-20th Century history, interacting with many famous real personages, at one point standing behind Hitler at a mass rally. Allen as Zelig had to be integrated with many vintage news reels, matched scene by scene. Willis had to age and undercrank his own film to match the older stock, and also match lighting, using vintage lenses, to make it all seamless.


Willis’ admirers believe because he was based in New York, the traditional Hollywood establishment considered him an outsider, hence the long term Oscar snub. His opening Black & White montage in Allen’s Manhattan  is a glorious, iconic moment; his visuals, Allen’s wit and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue are a love letter to the city that never sleeps.

Back in the shadows, his work on Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men shifts between the bright, angular world of the reporters news room and book lined apartments, and the mysterious car park meets with the informer “Deep Throat”.

Willis worked with Pakula on six films, including the touchstone ’70’s paranoid thriller, The Parallax View. Here is the sinister test film Warren Beatty is asked to watch when he visits the shady Parallax Corporation.

He sucked the light from the Depression-era Jazz joints of the big screen adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, but left enough to showcase Christopher Walken’s  dance skills with Let’s Misbehave.

Willis hasn’t much time for a lot of modern, overly lit films (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). He calls it the “beer commercial ” look – “Over-rich visuals with star bursts on the beer glasses and everybody’s teeth.”

Oscar winning cinematographer (Inception) and fledgling director Wally Pfister rates Willis highly. In a recent Q and A with students at Ringling College of Art and Design during a digital filmmaking program, he had this to say:

The one person who was my greatest inspiration and who influenced me most is Gordon Willis, one of the great cinematographers that never got an Oscar (for an individual film – I guess he isn’t counting or forgot the Lifetime Achievement award) which is criminal. An incredible body and breadth of work with a lot of different filmakers. I still believe it is possible that, from a cinematographic standpoint, “GodfatherII” is the best filmed movie of all time.”

Originally posted 2012-10-17 22:23:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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