Thursday, September 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Gordon Willis, 82, 'Godfather' cinematographer

Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis CHRIS PIZZELLO / Associated Press, file

FALMOUTH, Mass. - Gordon Willis, 82, one of Hollywood's most celebrated and influential cinematographers, nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness" for his subtle but indelible touch on such definitive 1970s releases as The Godfather, Annie Hall and All the President's Men, died of cancer Sunday at his Cape Cod home.

Through much of the 1970s, Mr. Willis was the cameraman relied on by some of Hollywood's top directors during one of filmmaking's greatest eras. Francis Ford Coppola used him for the first two "Godfather" movies, Woody Allen for Annie Hall and Manhattan, and Alan J. Pakula for Klute and All the President's Men.

During a remarkable run from 1971 to 1977, films he worked on won 19 Oscars and were nominated 39 times, from best picture for The Godfather and Annie Hall to acting for Jane Fonda in Klute and John Houseman in The Paper Chase. Yet Mr. Willis never won a competitive Oscar and was nominated just twice, for Allen's Zelig and for Coppola's The Godfather, Part III, which came out in 1990. An outsider by choice, Mr. Willis refused to live in California and told People magazine in 1983 that he had no interest in being rewarded "for spending time on the golf course or attending dinner parties."

The academy presented him an honorary award in 2009, noting "his willingness to fly in the face of convention."

Few directors of photography so ably demonstrated that a story could be told through the picture itself, whether the hushed, darkened opening of The Godfather; the bland, jaded sunshine of Los Angeles in Annie Hall; or the shadowy encounters with Deep Throat in All the President's Men. He liked filming in the late afternoon, when the sun was dimming, and had a feel for capturing melancholy and the distant past.

Mr. Willis' trademarks were simplicity, the contrast of light and dark, and a willingness to break the rules. He would remember encountering resistance during the first "Godfather" movie when he suggested obscuring Marlon Brando's features and was told that was not the way things were done.

"That's not a good enough reason," Mr. Willis later said. "There were times when we didn't want the audience to see what was going on in there [Brando's eyes], and then suddenly, you let them see into his soul for a while."

A native of New York City, Mr. Willis was the son of a Warner Bros. makeup man. By his late teens his passion was photography.

He and his wife, Helen, married in 1955. They had three children and five grandchildren.


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