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A Study in Contrasts
A Study in Contrasts Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis was never comfortable with Hollywood. But the cinematographer's way with light, and distance, has forever put his stamp on the movies. Gordon Willis doesn't miss much.

A reporter has finally arrived for a follow-up interview after calling to say he's running late because of car trouble. He'd first come by 10 days before. Willis greets him sympathetically. "So you didn't get it fixed, huh?" The reporter asks how he knows this. Willis smiles ever so slightly. "That's not the car you drove last time."

It makes perfect sense that Willis, 75, should be so observant. One of the great cinematographers, he has a legendary pair of eyes. Among the 35 films he's shot are the three "Godfather" pictures, "Klute," "The Paper Chase," "All the President's Men," "Pennies From Heaven," and "Presumed Innocent."

That's not counting Willis's eight years with Woody Allen, which produced the likes of "Annie Hall, " "Manhattan, " and "Zelig." "It was very pleasant working with Woody," Willis says. "It was like working with your hands in your pockets."

"To me, Gordy's number one," says William Fraker in a telephone interview. A past president of the American Society of Cinematographers, Fraker's resume includes "Rosemary's Baby " and "Bullitt. " "His work was a milestone in visual storytelling," he says.

"The only one who's comparable to Gordy in terms of stature and just blowing everybody away is [the French New Wave cinematographer] Raoul Coutard, " says Michael Chapman in a telephone interview. Chapman worked as Willis's cameraman for several years in the early '70s before going on to become the cinematographer on such films as "Taxi Driver " and "Raging Bull." " Both of them totally original, they transformed everything."

Willis still gets sent scripts, but it's been 10 years since he shot his last movie, "The Devil's Own. " He and his wife have lived in Falmouth for more than a decade. Their house overlooks a lake and cranberry bog. "I like it here," he says. "It's very quiet. The family's around." A son lives in Norwell, another in Northampton. There are grandchildren, too, their visits attested to by a scattering of children's videos in a basement family room.

The videos are among the few signs of Willis's professional life. There are posters from "Manhattan" and "All the President's Men" in the bathroom, a stack of recent DVDs on a table. That's about it.

Willis has never been comfortable with Hollywood. Born in Queens, he speaks with a slightly nasal New York accent and has a slightly tart manner to go with it. "He has a somewhat legendary reputation for crankiness," Stephen Pizzello says in an e - mail. Pizzello, executive editor of American Cinematographer magazine, is writing a book about Willis.

Sitting on a couch in the family room, Willis is as hospitable as he is articulate. But one can detect traces of the pugnacity and perfectionism that earned him the nickname "Take a Hike," Willis's standard response on the "Godfather" set whenever someone tried to tell him what to do.

Originally, he turned down the first two "Godfather" pictures. Willis was adamant about not doing the sequel until Francis Ford Coppola appealed to his aesthetic pride. "He said it won't look the same without me," Willis says with a guffaw. "So I agreed to do it."

Willis is a venerated figure among cinematographers today. Dion Beebe , who won the best cinematographer Oscar last year for "Memoirs of a Geisha, " screened the "Godfathers" for inspiration before shooting that film. But for years Willis was an East Coast maverick in a West Coast-dominated profession. That presumably accounts for the fact Willis has been up for an Academy Award just twice, for "Zelig" and "Godfather III," losing both times. "I've been nominated for Oscars as often as he has," Chapman says with a groan. "It's ridiculous!"

More than any other person, perhaps, Willis defined the look of American film during its Silver Age, the 1970s. As much as Robert Altman , he exalted the long shot. His use of distance on the screen could betoken menace (Warren Beatty in the empty convention center in "The Parallax View ") or put an aura around two lovers (the impossibly romantic image of Allen and Diane Keaton by the 59th Street Bridge in "Manhattan").

"I think there's a lot of drama in a little person in a lot of space," Willis explains. "I'd rather see the soprano die of tuberculosis in a long shot, for instance, than 29 close-ups of her going cough, cough, cough."

Willis's late friend, the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall , dubbed him "Prince of Darkness," a nickname he dislikes. "One lamp on a desk is fine with me, if it looks good," he says. Still, he became celebrated for his ability to underexpose film and use shadows with a subtlety -- and expressivity -- previously unknown on color film stock. Think of Don Corleone's study in "The Godfather" or Deep Throat's parking garage in "All the President's Men."

Or there was Willis's ability to use painterliness to define not just the look but the very meaning and feel of a film. Contrast the faintly toxic blue that tinges "President's Men" with the earth tones, alternately honeyed and sinister, of the "Godfather" pictures.

If there's a single guiding principle in Willis's cinematography it's a devotion to what he calls "visual relativity. "I like going from light to dark, dark to light, big to small, small to big," he says.

He cites "The Godfather" as an example. "You can decide this movie has got a dark palette. But you can't spend two hours on a dark palette. . . . So you've got this high-key, Kodachrome wedding going on [at the beginning]. Now you go back inside and it's dark again. It's the same with the whole movie. You can't, in my mind, put both feet into a bucket of cement and leave them there for the whole movie. It doesn't work. You must have this relativity."

The paradox of Willis's work is that it manages to be simultaneously varied and unmistakable. The kinky-oppressive New York of "Klute" is no less his handiwork than the radiant, lovestruck New York of "Annie Hall." The fluorescent-lit crispness of "President's Men" was just as much his as the lush black-and-white of "Manhattan."

"Gordy had a complete vision in his head of what it would be like and why it should be like that," Chapman says. "That's what's inspired later generations of cameramen. It's the idea of organizing it all in your head, not just for what it looks like but what the look tells you about the story."

Willis likens the cinematographer to a "visual psychiatrist." "It's your job to point the audience in a direction," he says. "You do it via how you cut actors, what size you cut them, how they're lit in a scene, how the camera moves, etc."

Willis tried directing -- once. It was "Windows, " a 1980 psychological thriller starring Talia Shire . "One of the mistakes I did in my life was to make that movie," Willis says with a not-so-fond chuckle. "The Germans and Swedes like it, though, for some reason."

Willis keeps busy teaching and lecturing. He's been urged to write a book but professes to be uncharacteristically intimidated by the prospect. When it's pointed out that a book is simply an accumulation of single pages, he nods.

"That's right. That's what I tell directors about shooting. It's one cut at a time. Put them all together and you have a movie."

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(c) 2006 The Boston Globe