Prince of darkness

Prince of darkness

striking intimacy The famous scene from Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’.

When Mario Puzo’s The Godfather became a Francis Ford Coppola movie in 1972, it created history. Millions of viewers and critics agreed with celebrated director Stanley Kubrick when he observed: “The Godfather was possibly the greatest movie ever made, and without question the best cast.”

Besides having an amazing star cast of Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, the film also cumulated some of the finest technical talent to recreate Puzo’s story of New York mafia family on the screen.

Two years later, The Godfather II became universally accepted for its cinematic brilliance. It won six Oscars. The Godfather III (1990), which concluded the Don Corleone saga, was not as successful as the preceding films, but still got nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director and Cinematography (Gordon Willis). It was Willis who had, to a large extent, helped Coppola sustain the stunning and haunting look of The Godfather trilogy. He filmed many hushed as well as action-packed sequences which held the audience utterly spellbound.

Who can, for instance, forget the memorable opening sequence of The Godfather where a subtle yet gripping drama is enacted in the dark, grim interiors of Corleone’s home? And that tense portrait of the Don with lurking dark shadows extending menacingly on the stern face?

Curiously, when first shown, the films photography had attracted fair bit of criticism from puritans who felt that the actors face had been masked by the overhead lighting. “I was just trying to create a visual structure that would tell the best story,” explained Willis. “I made a decision to light Marlon Brando in a manner that would define his character. Overhead lighting wasn’t a new idea, but it was a new idea to extend it for an entire movie, on everyone and everything. I did what I felt was appropriate, and it turned into something iconic.”

A perfectionist and a strict disciplinarian, Willis always had a prickly relationship with Hollywood, which he felt was full of rhetoric. “They never really see what they’re looking at.”

There are many interesting asides to Willis’s association with The Godfather films. In the first place, he was not keen to take on the job. When he refused to do the sequel, Coppola had to convince Willis that the film would not look the same without him.

When he finally agreed, Willis employed the same camera, the same lenses and the same everything which he had used for The Godfather, even though the equipment was a bit dated. In the end, Coppola summed up Willis talent saying, he has a natural sense of structure and beauty, not unlike a Renaissance artist.

Still to movies

Gordon Willis (b.1931/New York City) who came to be acknowledged as one of cinema’s foremost stylists was born in the film business. His parents were dancers in the theatre before his father settled down at Warner Brothers’ as a make-up artist during the depression.

Willis fiddled with acting as a kid but got interested in still photography and stagecraft as he grew up. Enlisting himself during the Korean War, he was associated with the motion picture unit of the Air Force and made documentaries for four years. After coming out, he became a freelance cameraman making commercials
and documentaries.

Willis’s movie career began with the End of the Road (1969). In the ensuing 28 years, he shot more than 30 feature films, including The Godfather trilogy, All The President’s Men (1976), and eight acclaimed films directed by Woody Allen, including Manhattan (1979),  Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). He went on to define the look of American cinema in the 1970s, so much so six films shot by him accumulated 39 Oscar nominations with 19 wins, including three
for Best Picture. Willis intriguingly won Oscar nominations for only two films — Zelig and The Godfather III — and the competitive award eluded him on both occasions. That did not prevent him from being hailed as the greatest, most respected and highly influential American cinematographer of his generation. His amazing ability to create gloriously gloomy ambiance through subtle lighting earned the nickname:
Prince of Darkness.

“For cinematographers, excellence in visual storytelling is the ultimate goal, and Gordon Willis achieved it on every film he shot,” observed Michael Goi, president of American Society of Cinematographers. “There’s a reason he’s been idolised by several generations of cinematographers, and it’s not simply because he shoots ‘dark’; it’s because he shoots perfect visual stories. His visual choices are so daring, so profound and so perfect that you cannot imagine that moment looking or feeling any other way. That’s what makes Gordon Willis the cinematographer’s
cinematographer.”

Willis retired from movies after shooting the 1997 thriller The Devil’s Own. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally woke up from its slumber early this month and presented him with an honourary Oscar for lifetime achievement.
“Tonight we make right a long-running wrong,” confessed Academy governor Caleb Deschanel, while actor Jeff Bridges reminded the audience about Willis’s unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, colour, and motion and presented him as the Godfather of Cinematography.

For all his outstanding achievements and accomplishments, Willis always believed in simple thumb rules. “I’m a minimalist; I see things in simple ways. The thing that you want to do is take a sophisticated idea and reduce it to the simplest possible terms... so that it’s accessible to everyone. Generally the opposite happens; people take a stand-alone idea and tie into knots. Very few people understand the elegance of simplicity.”

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