Three Faces of Cinematography

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Three Faces of Cinematography


Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Two events, a new awards ceremony devised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the premiere of a documentary feature on the Public Broadcasting Service, make this an opportune moment to praise three famous cinematographers of the past generation: Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond and the late Laszlo Kovacs.

One of four recipients honored Saturday for career achievements at the inaugural Governors Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., Mr. Willis belatedly kept a date with Oscar recognition, which had stubbornly, absurdly eluded him while he was an active professional. He was the director of photography on three movies chosen as best picture during the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II and Woody Allen's Annie Hall. To the bewilderment of many of us, he was not a best cinematography finalist for any of them.

In fact, Mr. Willis didn't crack the finals until 1983. His playful and versatile black-and-white collaboration with Mr. Allen on the pseudo-documentary satire Zelig finally put him in contention. (For the record, the Oscar went to the late Sven Nykvist for Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. ) It seemed the most conspicuous of afterthoughts when Mr. Willis was nominated for The Godfather, Part III in 1990. (This time both movie and cinematographer fell short, as Dances With Wolves took both categories.) Along the way Mr. Willis' peers managed to overlook his striking contributions to several other pictures, notably All the President's Men and Pennies From Heaven. Mr. Willis, 78, has been retired for about a decade and resides in Massachusetts.

Kovacs and Mr. Zsigmond are the subject of a dual biographical tribute, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos, which will be shown Tuesday at 10 p.m. on the PBS series Independent Lens. While friends and fellow film students in Budapest during the October 1956 uprising against the communist regime, they shot footage of street fighting and the arrival of Soviet troops sent to overwhelm the revolt. They fled the country by way of Austria with about 30,000 feet of clandestine documentation in potato sacks. In 1957, they arrived in the U.S. and eventually forged major careers in the Hollywood industry, after laboring from the bottom up. They emerged as resourceful creative collaborators for directors who were also engineering breakthroughs, notably Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman, Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese.

Academy Award nominations never did catch up with Kovacs, whose early credits included Easy Rider, "Five Easy Piece "and"Paper Moo "and whose later hit movies included"Ghostbuster "and"My Best Friend's Wedding "He died two years ago at age 74. Mr. Zsigmond won the Academy Award for best cinematography of 1977 for Steven Spielberg's"Close Encounters of the Third Kind," a production that recruited several other stellar lighting cameramen for additional photography, including Kovacs.

During their apprentice years in Hollywood , the Hungarian emigrants frequently were a two-man camera crew on low-budget horror, biker and nudie productions. I became aware of Kovacs before the others, when reviewing one of his biker melodramas with director Richard Rush, The Savage Seven, for a trade paper in 1968. It anticipated the contradictions of Easy Rider a year later, using space and color so vividly that the sordid thematic elements were almost transcended by pictorial virtuosity.

Mr. Zsigmond, 79, acquired Oscar credibility with the official peer group, the American Society of Cinematographers, in the aftermath of Close Encounters. …

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