Two events, a new awards ceremony devised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the premiere of a documentary feature on the Public Broadcasting Service, make this an opportune moment to praise three famous cinematographers of the past generation: Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond and the late Laszlo Kovacs.
One of four recipients honored Saturday for career achievements at the inaugural Governors Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., Mr. Willis belatedly kept a date with Oscar recognition, which had stubbornly, absurdly eluded him while he was an active professional. He was the director of photography on three movies chosen as best picture during the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” To the bewilderment of many of us, he was not a best cinematography finalist for any of them.
In fact, Mr. Willis didn’t crack the finals until 1983. His playful and versatile black-and-white collaboration with Mr. Allen on the pseudo-documentary satire “Zelig” finally put him in contention. (For the record, the Oscar went to the late Sven Nykvist for Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander.”) It seemed the most conspicuous of afterthoughts when Mr. Willis was nominated for “The Godfather, Part III” in 1990. (This time both movie and cinematographer fell short, as “Dances With Wolves” took both categories.) Along the way Mr. Willis’ peers managed to overlook his striking contributions to several other pictures, notably “All the President’s Men” and “Pennies From Heaven.” Mr. Willis, 78, has been retired for about a decade and resides in Massachusetts.
Kovacs and Mr. Zsigmond are the subject of a dual biographical tribute, “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos,” which will be shown Tuesday at 10 p.m. on the PBS series “Independent Lens.” While friends and fellow film students in Budapest during the October 1956 uprising against the communist regime, they shot footage of street fighting and the arrival of Soviet troops sent to overwhelm the revolt. They fled the country by way of Austria with about 30,000 feet of clandestine documentation in potato sacks. In 1957, they arrived in the U.S. and eventually forged major careers in the Hollywood industry, after laboring from the bottom up. They emerged as resourceful creative collaborators for directors who were also engineering breakthroughs, notably Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman, Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese.
Academy Award nominations never did catch up with Kovacs, whose early credits included “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “Paper Moon” and whose later hit movies included “Ghostbusters” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” He died two years ago at age 74. Mr. Zsigmond won the Academy Award for best cinematography of 1977 for Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a production that recruited several other stellar lighting cameramen for additional photography, including Kovacs.
During their apprentice years in Hollywood , the Hungarian emigrants frequently were a two-man camera crew on low-budget horror, biker and nudie productions. I became aware of Kovacs before the others, when reviewing one of his biker melodramas with director Richard Rush, “The Savage Seven,” for a trade paper in 1968. It anticipated the contradictions of “Easy Rider” a year later, using space and color so vividly that the sordid thematic elements were almost transcended by pictorial virtuosity.
Mr. Zsigmond, 79, acquired Oscar credibility with the official peer group, the American Society of Cinematographers, in the aftermath of “Close Encounters.” He was nominated the next year for “The Deer Hunter,” which won as best motion picture, and several years later for “The River.” Typically, he was overlooked for the films that made him a name to conjure with as far as avid moviegoers were concerned in the early 1970s: Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” John Boorman’s film version of “Deliverance” and Mr. Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, “The Sugarland Express.”
Although the winners for best cinematography were usually defensible throughout the decade, the finalists often favored an old guard at the expense of such arresting and distinctive newcomers as Kovacs, Mr. Zsigmond and Mr. Willis.
The Governors Awards are meant to become a distinguished annual event for Academy members. Lauren Bacall, the low-budget producer-director Roger Corman (occasionally an employer for Kovacs or Mr. Zsigmond) and former studio executive John Calley joined Mr. Willis as honorees for the 2009 awards. I suspect the ceremony could nurture another sore point, because it separates the career awards from the big, public Oscar show, as the technical awards were separated many years ago.
In all likelihood, the minutes saved by shifting a few “minor” awards to a private ceremony will allow more promotion for additional best picture finalists. The Oscar telecast will become even safer as an advertising platform and less relevant to movie history and tradition. All the belated awards that fell through the cracks of the regular voting process can now be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Governors Awards, which may or may not get around to recognition before deserving subjects perish of old age.
A number of documentary sources are available to supplement the chronicle of flight and fulfillment told in “No Subtitles Necessary.” The Hungarians and Mr. Willis turn up in a compilation documentary about movies of the 1970s called “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” derived from a similarly titled book, and in an impressive collection of interview excerpts with about three dozen contemporary pros, “Cinematographer Style.” Mr. Willis was also a principal subject in a handsome history of cinematography compiled in 1992, “Visions of Light.” He can be found too briefly in the “bonus” material for the DVD set that incorporates all three “Godfather” films, recalling how the splendidly apprehensive, and sometimes underexposed, color schemes evolved.
At one point in “Cinematographer Style,” Mr. Willis wittily parodies his reputation for dark imagery by requesting his interviewer to turn off the key light. The request is granted, and plunges Mr. Willis into near darkness. “I like that better,” he quips. In fact, his intuitions can withstand full illumination. You come away from the film persuaded that cinematographers belong to one of the most astute and enviable tribes on earth.