Obituary #1

Colour blind cinematographer Haskell Wexler used contrasts and shadows

The Oscar-winning cinematographer worked with many of the best-known directors of his time

Director John Sayles.
Director John Sayles.

NEW YORK • Haskell Wexler, who was renowned as one of the most inventive cinematographers in Hollywood and an outspoken political firebrand, died on Sunday in Santa Monica, California. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son Jeff.

With two Academy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Wexler was a prominent member of the artistic elite. But he was also a lifelong advocate of progressive causes whose landmark Medium Cool - a fiction film shot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago - demolished boundaries between documentary and fiction, reflecting his refusal to recognise limitations in either art or politics.

He received the last Oscar that would be given for black-and-white cinematography, for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He won again a decade later for Bound For Glory (1976), a biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie (whom Wexler had met during World War II, when both served in the merchant marine).

I remember turning the TV on and seeing an empty backyard, in black and white, and thinking 'Haskell Wexler shot this'... Sure enough, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton sloshed out into the scene, in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.

DIRECTOR JOHN SAYLES, on how Haskell Wexler worked differently from other cinematographers

Wexler was a member of a rare Hollywood breed, the celebrity cinematographer. He collaborated with many of the best-known directors of his times, beginning with Elia Kazan in 1963 (America, America) and including Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, Hal Ashby, Norman Jewison and George Lucas, who credited Wexler as "visual consultant" on his breakthrough 1973 comedy, American Graffiti.

In Tell Them Who You Are (2005), a documentary about Wexler directed by his son Mark, the film director Ron Howard, one of the stars of American Graffiti, recalled the making of that film: "Everybody involved on the acting side didn't know much about George Lucas, but was very impressed that Haskell Wexler was killing himself to come work on this movie. I mean, it was insane. He would shoot a commercial during the day in Los Angeles, then fly to San Francisco, drive to Marin County, work there till dawn and then go get on a plane. And not once in a while. He was doing this three or four nights a week."

Director John Sayles said Wexler was one of the few cinematographers whose first reaction to a script was not about lighting the scenes ("which he did beautifully, with an incredibly high speed-to-skill ratio") but to discuss what the story was about - thematically, morally, politically.

"A lot of directors find this to be a problem," Sayles said in an interview in 2010. "But as Haskell would say, 'There are no problems, only opportunities.'"

Wexler was known for his signature use of contrasts and shadows. He was colour blind, so he worked differently from others in his field, especially after colour became dominant.

"I remember turning the TV on and seeing an empty backyard, in black and white, and thinking 'Haskell Wexler shot this,'" Sayles said. "Sure enough, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton sloshed out into the scene, in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. Just something about the depth, the layers of light, very natural but very alive."

Wexler directed a documentary, Who Needs Sleep? (2006), that examined the routine overworking of Hollywood film crews (and, by extension, America's 24/7 work ethic), and he seemed to sleep little himself.

In addition to the studio features he shot over the years (In The Heat Of The Night, 1967; The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968; and Coming Home, 1978) he worked on non-mainstream fare such as Michael Moore's 1995 satire Canadian Bacon and Frank Zappa's unfinished Uncle Meat.

Wexler, who described himself as a radical, believed that his work on the documentary Underground (1976), which featured interviews with members of the Weather Underground, who were fugitives at the time, led to his dismissal as director of photography on One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975). The film that would go on to win five Academy Awards.

But the director of that film, Milos Forman, said the dismissal stemmed from artistic differences, adding that Wexler was difficult to work with.

"I was devastated," Wexler said in a 2010 interview for this obituary. "There's only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn't shoot." (He and Bill Butler received Oscar nominations for the film's cinematography.)

Born in Chicago on Feb 6, 1922, to Lottie and Simon Wexler - his father was the founder of Allied Radio, a mail-order and retail electronics firm - Wexler grew up in a household both affluent and left-leaning.

He attended the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out after a year and joined the merchant marine. During World War II, the ship he was on was sunk by German torpedoes and he spent nearly two weeks in a lifeboat with 20 people.

Sayles said Wexler had once told him the story of being torpedoed.

"He said the U-boat surfaced as the sailors were swimming to their lifeboats and they all were afraid it was coming up to machine-gun them. Instead, the captain lifted a small movie camera to document his kill and Haskell remembered thinking, 'I wonder if he's shooting colour or black and white?'"

Besides his wife, actress Rita Taggart, and two sons, he is survived by a sister, a daughter, four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Colour blind cinematographer used contrasts and shadows'. Print Edition | Subscribe