A Tribute to Gordon Willis

Gordon Willis wasn’t a household name. Though one of the most respected figures in Hollywood, he never appeared in front of a camera. His job was to make other people look good on screen.

Willis was a cinematographer – one of the best who ever lived. His specialty was light and shadow. In fact, his was sometimes referred to as “the Prince of Darkness.”

Willis died May 18, 2014, at the age of 82. But he left behind some spectacular movies, films that were only improved by the images he captured on celluloid (his last film was in 1997, before the industry transition to all-digital cinematography).

Willis was twice nominated for Oscars (for The Godfather: Part III and Zelig) and in 2010 received an honorary Academy Award for “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color, and motion.”

Here is just a sampling of Willis-filmed features in the Library’s collection:

Klute (1971): A moody mystery about a high-priced call girl (Jane Fonda, who won an Oscar) being stalked by a killer and protected by a doggedly decent private eye (Donald Sutherland).

The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974), and The Godfather: Part III (1990): The greatest crime saga ever made...and Willis’ cinematography perfectly reflected the look of the 1940s and ‘50s.

The Parallax View (1974): A great paranoid thriller about a reporter (Warren Beatty) who stumbles across a series of political assassinations.

All the President’s Men (1976): Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose Watergate reporting helped bring down President Richard Nixon.

Annie Hall (1977): This quirky love story – which won Oscars for best picture and lead actress Diane Keaton – was the first of many collaborations between Willis and Woody Allen.

Manhattan (1979): This New York-based love story (again, with Allen and Keaton) reminds us of just how gorgeous black and white can be.

Zelig (1983): Woody Allen’s faux documentary – about a mysterious man whose appearance magically alters so that he can blend in anywhere – allowed Willis to recreate the look of vintage newsreels.

Broadway Danny Rose (1984): Another black-and-white masterpiece about a tacky theatrical agent (Allen) who finds himself on the run with a gangster’s girlfriend (Mia Farrow).

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): Another Willis/Woody effort, with Mia Farrow as a Depression-era housewife who finds a character from a movie (Jeff Daniels) has stepped off the screen and into her world.

Presumed Innocent (1990): This hugely popular mystery starred Harrison Ford as an assistant district attorney on trial for murdering his girlfriend.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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