A Tribute to Legendary Cinematographer Gordon Willis

Dear readers,

I know this isn’t the usual HelloGiggles fare, but I wanted to share with you a speech my father wrote as a tribute to Gordon Willis at the Governors Awards a few years ago. Gordon, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 82, was a legendary cinematographer who shot “The Godfather” movies, “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” among many others, and somehow never won an Oscar for any of his seminal works.

He was a great artist and a great friend and mentor to my father. We are all thinking about him and his family this week—along with remembering his amazing film legacy.


A Tribute to Gordon Willis, by Caleb Deschanel, from the 2009 Governors Awards:

Gordon Willis is a diehard New Yorker who’s never been afraid to shoot down Hollywood—he always thought Hollywood would “topple over like a stack of books anyway” and fall into the ocean—so he doesn’t like spending a lot of time here!

When I was a fellow at the AFI in 1970, I talked them into an internship with a cinematographer—they wanted me to study with an old time Hollywood cameraman. But I had seen Gordon’s work on his first two movies, “End of the Road” and “Loving” and I thought this was the kind of shooting I wanted to do—the AFI had never heard of him. “Why the hell would you want to study with him?” But I was determined and called Gordon to get his OK – and Gordon said: “Why the hell would you want to study with me?” But I convinced him and went back to New York to watch him shoot the film, “The People Next Door.”

I made diagrams of lighting, checked exposures with my light meters, watched dailies with him and listened as Gordon ripped his own work apart. He was never satisfied! But most importantly, I spent hours after shooting—mostly in bars—where Gordon’s colorful way of speaking would often get us in trouble. This is where I learned the most: his ideas about a movie’s point of view, how to prepare a visual unity for a movie, what was being done wrong and sometimes what was being done right on the movie he was shooting. What to look for in a script. Where to put the camera and why.

Gordy loved to complain about Hollywood. “You know, some Hollywood cameramen are just a bunch of flame throwers,” or if he really didn’t like them, he’d say “I wouldn’t hire that guy to shoot a wedding”… I told Gordy he should be more careful. You never know, you might offend somebody. Gordy smiled. Gordon would sound off: “All the labs have turned into a bunch of laundromats.” He liked to catch them making mistakes—and watch them squirm as they faced the undeniable truth of his exacting exposures. He’d go on: “Some directors are just dump-truck directors—they don’t think about what they shoot, they just fill up a big dump-truck with a bunch of shots and dump them in the editors’ lap!” And then he’d talk about Studio Executives … [pause….look at Gordon] … You know Gordon, I’m just going to skip over this part….!

Gordon always loved actors … especially when they hit their marks! If they were having trouble he’d say to his crew: “OK, the next time he hits his mark,  nail his shoes to the floor.” Or he’d tell his assistant: “Go put a $100 bill on the mark and tell her if she hits it, she can keep it….”

Every wisecrack or observation would keep the atmosphere light and his loyal crew loved him. The directors, writers, producers, costume designers, production designers and actors loved Gordon for what he magically created on the screen. GORDON, Your incredible work has been acknowledged by so many – but NOT SO MUCH by the Academy. I thought I’d offer up a brief explanation as to why you had to wait so long for this Oscar.

1. The Godfather: Considered one of the greatest movies of the all time – and one of the seminal films in cinematography—nominated for 11 academy awards—but no nomination for cinematography.  Of course everyone knew there’d be a sequel – so maybe they thought – if you don’t get the nomination this time you’ll be inspired to do even better work on the next Godfather.

2. Godfather II : Well Gordon, you WERE inspired, you did do even more incredible work than on the first Godfather – but, of course, there’s an unspoken rule – sequels DO NOT get nominated!. So no nomination again. Sorry about that.

3. Annie Hall: Another unspoken rule: Comedies do not get nominated. No nomination. Sorry about that too…

4. All the Presidents Men:  Now Gordon—and this is just my own theory, but —maybe, just maybe, it was the wise-ass remarks I warned you about – the ones that go: “They’re just a bunch of flame throwers…. Or: “I wouldn’t hire that guy to shoot a wedding”…..maybe word got out …

5. Manhattan: Woody Allen’s love poem to New York, beautiful black and white photography—but I guess no one told you, The Black and White cinematography award was eliminated in 1967. I think your friend Haskell picked up the last one of those! He might have warned you they had run out …

There are so many more, but as Gordon would say:


Let us pause now and simply salute one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of film, Gordon Willis.

GORDON, tonight we make right a long standing wrong—not by honoring just one film, but by honoring your entire amazing oeuvre—I know how much you hate fancy words, but tonight is SPECIAL—and in fact “oeuvre” is just a fancy French word for “Dump Truck.” So to your extraordinary, and dazzling body of work. We are all so proud to congratulate you for this well deserved honor!

 You can see this speech live at the event here. 

Featured image via “The Godfather” Wikia