When the eyes of a great image-maker finally close, the world darkens a bit for everyone left behind.
Such was the gift of Gordon Willis, who died at age 82 on Sunday. A meticulous craftsman, perfectionist, scourge of director and actor alike, Willis changed the way both movies look and the way we look at movies. And for three filmmakers whose work has become synonymous with the trailblazing New Hollywood of the 1970s – Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Alan J. Pakula – the contribution made by the man they called the Prince of Darkness was so instrumental as to be essential. To picture say, Manhattan, The Godfather or All the President’s Men with anyone else behind the lens is to imagine different movies entirely.
A Korean War Air Force movie photographer and ad business veteran, Willis was only 40 years old, and with only four movies on his resumé, when he was hired to shoot the intensely anticipated movie adaptation of Mario Puzo’s Mafia pulp blockbuster The Godfather in 1971. It was only one of a series of highly contentious hirings that had the studio heads at Paramount – already on the ropes and praying for box office salvation – chewing fingernails to the quick: first this kid Coppola as director, then the commercially toxic Marlon Brando as Godfather Vito Corleone, then all those unknowns – Al Pacino, Diane Keaton – in key roles, and now a barely known D.O.P. named Gordon Willis behind the camera. Surely doom would follow.