Wednesday, April 22, 2009

American "Golden Age" Cinematographers Who Kept Working After 1970?




The death of the great British cinematographer Jack Cardiff (he was 94) brings to mind a movie-history issue that I've always found kind of interesting. Cardiff, like most of the great cinematographers around the world, continued to get regular work for many decades; though a lot of things changed in terms of the way movies were shot, lit and processed, old masters like Cardiff and Sven Nykvist were always in demand. But one place where this wasn't true was America: when the U.S. film industry changed sharply in the late '60s, almost all the old-school cinematographers stopped working.

If you look at the filmographies of the great and prolific Hollywood cinematographers of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, you'll find that they continued working regularly throughout the '60s, but got little or no work in the '70s. A random example: Daniel Fapp. He did dozens of films as a contractee for Paramount (he did almost all the Martin and Lewis movies); when the studio system broke down, he went freelance and did pictures like West Side Story, One, Two, Three, and Lord Love a Duck, and after 1969, he never worked again, though he lived until 1986.

Or take Joe Ruttenberg, who was MGM's most-requested cinematographer from the '30s onward. In 1968, he retired from MGM and never did a movie again. Leon Shamroy, who was to Fox what Ruttenberg was to MGM, also left the studio in 1969 and, though he had done freelance work for other studios in the '60s, he never worked on another film until his death in 1974. Joseph La Shelle (Laura, The Apartment) worked steadily for three decades, but his last credit is in, you guessed it, 1969.

Those guys, presumably, could afford to retire; old-school cinematographers who needed to keep working after 1970 had to go into television, like Russell Metty, Universal's great cinematographer, who found himself assigned to Universal's TV shows instead of its features.

Now, some of this just has to do with age. William Daniels, one of two great cinematographers who has the same name as another celebrity (Arthur Miller is the other), died in 1970. And James Wong Howe, perhaps the most revered of the golden-agers, didn't do a lot of films in the '70s, but it wasn't because he wasn't in demand, it was because his health wasn't good. (He was the first choice to do The Godfather, but he wasn't up to it physically.) But the pattern is so clear, and so different from other countries, that it does seem like there was some kind of ageism involved here, or perhaps a perception that old-school cinematographers could not be depended on to deliver what the New Hollywood wanted. That perception might be true, of course. The old-school cinematographers mostly didn't think much of the new techniques that the Altmans and Coppolas and Scorseses demanded; Gordon Willis, who shot many of the most important films of the '70s, didn't get nominated for any of them because the old-timers at the Academy hated what he was doing.

One old-timer who did continue to work steadily into the '70s was Robert Surtees, who followed the same pattern as the other guys -- under contract to a studio for many years, went freelance in the '60s -- but was saved by one movie: he shot The Graduate, and (as noted in Pictures at a Revolution) Mike Nichols gave Surtees a lot of credit for delivering all the crazy things he asked for, as well as teaching Nichols a lot about lighting and camera angles. Surtees was very much an old-timer in many ways; when he shot The Last Picture Show, he refused to shoot a scene of dogs copulating, and Polly Platt shot it instead, imitating Surtees' techniques. But his superb work on Graduate and Last Picture Show gave him the kind of cred that other old cinematographers didn't have, so he continued to work well into the late '70s, on both new-school and old-school movies. (On the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born according to Frank Pierson's article in New York, Barbra Streisand was initially upset about having to work with an old cinematographer, until she saw that Surtees was making her look better than she had in any other movie.) It may also have helped that his son Bruce was a much-in-demand director of photography at that point.

Surtees was lucky; other old-timers were put out to pasture after successfully adapting to every other change in Hollywood style. Not to denigrate the work of the younger men who replaced them, but it seems a bit of a shame that the great American directors of photography did not get the same elder-statesman treatment accorded to the great cinematographers from other countries, like Cardiff, Nykvist, Freddie Young, Freddie Francis or Claude Renoir.

4 comments:

Griff said...

Barbra Streisand wasn't necessarily opposed to "old cinematographers" -- she had been terribly fond of Harry Stradling, Sr., who successively shot FUNNY GIRL, HELLO, DOLLY! and ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. [Stradling passed away while shooting THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT; Andrew Laszlo finished the picture.]

Also, after approving Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the greatest and most audacious of the new-school cinematographers, as director of photography for FUNNY LADY, Streisand was reportedly instrumental in his quick exit from the project, though sources differ on the reasons. Zsigmond's replacement: 75-year-old James Wong Howe, talked out of retirement by Ray Stark and Herbert Ross.

Martin Gottfried's biography of Bob Fosse describes Robert Surtees as someone willing to do anything Fosse wanted him to do with a camera on SWEET CHARITY, and if Fosse didn't have any elaborate ideas for shooting a scene... well, Surtees was glad to suggest some. [Gottfried suggests that the producers of CABARET forbade Fosse from hiring Surtees to shoot that film; they were terrified of possible budget overruns.]

Surtees embraced the new-school use of the zoom lens to the extent that he became impatient with Bogdanovich's formalist insistence on LAST PICTURE SHOW for laying dolly tracks for each camera movement, however minute. He would reportedly grumble loudly about this to the very end of shooting, probably as much to rile the filmmaker as anything else.

Stephanie said...

Conrad Hall doesn't count as a Golden Age cinematographer, but his appeal seems to have been evergreen - he won 3 Oscars with a thirty year gap between two of them.

I was watching Malice on cable the other night and thinking how much I miss Gordon Willis. No matter how dark his shots were, you could always see clearly what he wanted you to see. So many don't get that.

Rick Roberts said...

Douglas Slocombe, alive and well at 96, is another Cinematographer who still got work well after his peak years.

Mr. said...

In one of his obituaries, Cardiff is quoted as saying that it was hard to work with younger directors because they had been to film school and wanted to call all the technological shots themselves. I can see how that would add to the inevitable generation gap.