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Gordon Willis and the honorary Oscar

Posted by Wesley Morris  November 9, 2009 11:42 AM

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My pal Mark Feeney offers this appreciation of cinematographer Gordon Willis, who’s slated to receive a long overdue and vastly deserved lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this Saturday. Three years ago he interviewed Willis at his Falmouth home and, later, provided this, well, illuminating transcript.

The name “movies” is misleading. Before they are anything else, movies are appearance, not motion. That being the case, few people alive have so fundamentally affected the movies - have so influenced their appearance - as the cinematographer Gordon Willis. So fundamentally or so variously: The warm and sinister earth tones of the “Godfather” pictures could hardly be more different from the toxic fluorescent blues of “All the President’s Men” (1976) or the lustrous black and white of “Manhattan” (1979) And that’s not counting how Willis made the daunting technical gymnastics of “Zelig” (1983) seem as effortless as screwing in a lightbulb.

This Saturday Willis is to receive an honorary Oscar, as are John Calley (recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award), Roger Corman, and Lauren Bacall. It’s an especially impressive list. Calley is one of the most respected of Hollywood executives, a key figure during the ‘70s at Warners, later the head of both United Artists and Sony, and an independent producer whose films have run the gamut from “The Remains of the Day” to “The Da Vinci Code.” Corman, of course, is a unique figure in Hollywood history, for decades an impresario of subversive schlock who helped foster the careers of Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme, among others. ">Lauren Bacall you know about - you do know how to whistle, don’t you?

The reason the list is so impressive is, presumably, the same reason the awards are being given now instead of March 7, at the regular awards ceremony. The Academy is trying to sex up the broadcast (and increase television ratings) by doubling the number of best picture nominees to ten and off-loading the honorary awards. But even the Academy isn’t so stupid as to fail to realize that those are often have the worthiest, and most distinguished, recipients. So the last thing it wants is to make the honorary awards seem like a superannuated version of the technical awards (which got off-loaded some time ago).

So it’s a great list – but if you care about the movies, the greatest name on that list belongs to Willis. Bacall’s is the biggest, of course, and she’s great, too. But few people in the history of film in any field have had the kind of run Willis had between 1971, with Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute” (has New York City ever looked more matter of factly kinky?) and 1985, with Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Willis earned his nickname, “the Prince of Darkness,” with the first two “Godfather” pictures. But he was no less good with radiance – “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” (1982), for Allen, or Pakula’s “Comes a Horseman” (1978), an otherwise forgettable movie whose glorious exteriors make one mourn the western Willis might have photographed for Sam Peckinpah, say.

Willis’s most celebrated shot is probably the long, long Library of Congress reverse shot in “All the President’s Men” (not his idea, and disapproved of its showiness). His most celebrated achievement, and rightly so, has to be the look of the “Godfather” movies: the alternation between shadow and light, the use of tableau-like long shots, etc. Conversely, the accomplishment he gets least credit for, and in some ways it’s his most impressive, is single-handedly making Woody Allen a visual director. Before “Annie Hall” (1977) the first movie Willis shot for Allen, none of his pictures had anything approaching a look. Contrast that with how distinctive, distinguished, and utterly different from each other are the visual presentations of “Annie Hall,” “Interiors” (1978), “Manhattan,” “Stardust Memories” (1980), “Sex Comedy,” “Zelig,” “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984), and “Purple Rose.”

And that leaves unmentioned Willis’s sumptuous, one-of-a-kind evocation of the Great Depression in “Pennies from Heaven” (1981), how in Pakula’s “The Parallax View” (1974) he codified a visual grammar for the paranoid thriller, or how John Houseman credited Willis’s visual scheme for helping “create” Houseman’s character in James Bridges’s “The Paper Chase” (1973). Houseman offered that tribute in the acceptance speech he gave when he won his best supporting actor Oscar. Now Willis will finally get to give one, too.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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