Legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, the “Prince of Darkness” who was responsible for the look of such era-defining films of the Seventies as the first two Godfather films, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall and Manhattan, died Sunday at the age of 82, according to Variety. His cause of death was not listed.
A native of Queens, New York, Willis cultivated an early interest in photography and, while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, joined the motion-picture unit. After the war, Willis worked as an assistant camerman on commercials and documentaries before shooting his first film, End of the Road — the first of four films released in 1970 for which he’s credited as cinematographer (the others: Loving, The People Next Door and The Landlord).
It was Willis’ work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972, however, that would make his name; his use of rich, warm sepia tones and copious shadows lent the film an austere, nostalgic and sometimes menacing look that set much of the tone for the decade’s cinematography. It quickly pushed Willis to the forefront of contemporary cinematographers and earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness” (a moniker that’s attributed to fellow director of photography Conrad Hall). He would explore the use of darkness as a visual metaphor for a character’s moral free-fall even further in the Oscar-winning movie’s sequel, The Godfather: Part II (1974); in the documentary Visions of Light, Willis mentions a scene that takes place in Michael Corleone’s study in Lake Tahoe and wryly comments “I may have gone too far a couple of times…I think Rembrandt went too far a couple of times!”
Willis went on to shoot some key Seventies thrillers (The Parallax View), political dramas (All the President’s Men) and several Woody Allen movies, notably Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979) and Zelig (1983), where his groundbreaking blending of scratchy newsreel footage with doctored shots of the characters earned him his first of two Oscar nominations. His second nomaintion would be for The Godfather: Part III in 1991 and he’d eventually win an honorary Academy Award in 2009 “for unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”
His effect on the look of modern movies — not just the New Hollywood films that today’s generation of filmmakers rightly hail as moody masterpieces, but on such eye-poppingly vibrant works as Herbert Ross’ underrated adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1981) — is incalcuable and invaluable. “Our job isn’t to recreate reality,” Willis said in this interview, reprinted by Indiewire in 2013. “Our job is to represent reality.” The clip reel from his films below attest to the fact that Willis did that, beautifully and brilliantly.