6 Brilliant Films by This Weekend's Honorary Oscar-Winning DP Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis is the best cinematographer America ever produced. There. I said it. If he'd only shot the Godfather trilogy, Manhattan, Zelig and All the President's Men (let alone Pennies From Heaven, Interiors, Klute and Broadway Danny Rose), he'd have at least earned consideration among the greats like Gregg Toland and Billy Bitzer and his Oscar-winning contemporaries Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler. And very few would argue against Willis being the best American cinematographer to never win an Oscar -- until tomorrow, that is, when Willis will join Roger Corman as a recipient of a long, long over lifetime-achievement Academy Award. In a series of clips after the jump, see some of what the Academy missed (and is finally making up for) all these years.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Before we get started, keep in mind that we're kind of at YouTube's mercy here. In a just world, where owning the rights to a perfect film means having an obligation to make it available in high-definition on demand at any time, the opening scene of The Godfather would look better than what we've got here. That said, it established with certitude, conviction and unerring precision the visual tone that Willis and Francis Ford Coppola would employ in their adaptation of Mario Puzo's bestseller. Paramount hated it. Then it opened. A billion-dollar franchise later, the rest is history: The Godfather earned 11 Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Picture. Willis wasn't among any of them.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Willis and Coppola went even darker with their relatively huge-budget sequel, often clashing over set-ups and exposures that left the actors almost completely enshrouded in shadow. (Of Michael Corleone's heart-to-heart with his mother just before her death, even Willis has admitted he could have opened up a stop or two.) Take Michael's showdown with Fredo after his brother's return to the family's Tahoe compound:
The film's most important (and impressive) set piece follows Vito Corleone's rooftop route over the San Gennaro Parade in Little Italy, stalking Don Fanucci before assassinating the mafia kingpin in his own doorway. The bulb flick is like showing off, but that's why he's Gordon Willis.