Gordon Willis was nominated for the Best Cinematography Academy Award twice. Only twice. It’s unbelievable, and it stands as one of the greatest injustices in the overstuffed annals of egregious omissions of the august award-giving body. Let’s illustrate the extent of the oversight further: from 1972 to 1974, Willis was the cinematographer on four different Best Picture nominees, three of which actually claimed the top prize, and though his category often went in rough lockstep with Best Picture Willis wasn’t among the competitors once during this span. To make it even more clear, practically ever obituary and remembrance cites his work on The Godfather as his crowning achievement, the effort that elevates him to the sort of prominence in cinematic history that merits special attention. The only Godfather film for which he earned an Oscar nomination had the roman numeral III in the title. And across multiple collaborations with director Woody Allen, filled with ingenious ideas and iconic imagery, it wasn’t until Zelig, brilliant work again but more gimmicky than his norm, that enough of his peers wrote the name of his film on a ballot to get him invited to Hollywood’s biggest night.
The Academy eventually righted their collective wrong, taking their own sweet time to do so given that it was over ten years after his last big-screen credit by the time they got around to it. Certainly by then his reputation had only grown and solidified. As with so many of the honorary Oscar recipients, the Academy needed the legitimacy of Gordon Willis more than vice versa. The Godfather probably remains his most exalted and influential film, although I’d make a case that he never did better than with Allen’s Manhattan, which stands with the best of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick in any reasonable discussion of the most beautifully shot films of all time. I could happily watch the opening sequence of that film on repeat for hours on end, and it’s Willis’s eye as much as Allen’s impeccable timing that makes it soar. Add to those films Allen’s Annie Hall and Interiors, as well as The Parallax View, All the President’s Men and underrated later efforts like Presumed Innocent and The Devil’s Own, his last film, and there’s an enviable career that serves as a master class in developing mood visually.
Willis picked up the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” for his wizardry with deep shadows. According to Willis, in the wonderful documentary Visions of Light, Willis notes that his trademark stemmed from an adjustment to Marlon Brando’s makeup on The Godfather. Willis bathed Brando in darkness because it helped the illusion of the great actor in his late forties aging a couple of decades. It’s a reminder that Willis’s job may often by viewed as part of the technical side of filmmaking, but that’s a short-sighted view. Willis may have worked with lights and lens and other piece of equipment. But every choice he made demonstrated definitely that he was more artist than technician. And as an artist he was truly one of the greats.