Oscar winning cameraman Haskell Wexler dies at 93
Haskell Wexler, one of Hollywood's most honored cinematographers and one whose innovative approach helped him win Oscars for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, died Sunday. He was 93.
LOS ANGELES - Haskell Wexler, one of Hollywood's most honored cinematographers and one whose innovative approach helped him win Oscars for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, died Sunday. He was 93.
A liberal activist, Mr. Wexler was the cinematographer on some of the most socially relevant and influential films of the 1960s and '70s, including the Jane Fonda-Jon Voight antiwar classic Coming Home, the Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger racial drama In the Heat of the Night, and the Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
"He was a wonderful father. I owe most of who I am to his wisdom and guidance," said son Jeff Wexler, nominated for Oscars himself for Independence Day and The Last Samurai.
Fonda praised Mr. Wexler on her Twitter account: "He was brave & gorgeous and I loved him."
When not working on big-budget studio fare, Mr. Wexler traveled the world, directing and photographing documentaries for favorite causes.
His 1969 Medium Cool mixed documentary and dramatic elements, telling the story of a fictional television photographer (Robert Forster) who covers the violence between Chicago police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The real-life unrest was filmed on the spot for the movie, lending the film a cinema verité veneer.
Mr. Wexler was noted for his versatile and intuitive approach. For Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the last film to receive an Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography, he used hand-held cameras to capture the tension of the tirades between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For In the Heat of the Night, he put silks over the tops of sets and aimed lights at their centers. His aim was to contribute to the tension between Poitier's big-city black detective and Steiger's Southern white lawman. As visual consultant on George Lucas' American Graffiti, he hosed down the streets to achieve a moody, reflective style. He helped give Terence Malick's Days of Heaven a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere.
Mr. Wexler's documentaries include The Bus, about the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to integrate the South in the 1960s; Latino, which examined American policy in Nicaragua; Interviews With My Lai Veterans, on survivors of U.S. brutality in Vietnam; and Brazil: Report on Torture.
Born into a well-to-do Chicago family on Feb. 6, 1922, Mr. Wexler was still in grade school when he went to work for a photographer involved in the trade-union movement. At 12, he recorded his family's vacation in Mussolini's Italy with his family's home-movie camera.
He left the University of California, Berkeley, to enlist in the Merchant Marine as the United States was about to enter World War II. After his ship was torpedoed off the tip of South Africa, Mr. Wexler helped some of the sailors join him in a lifeboat.
Returning to Chicago, he made films for the United Electrical Workers Union. He moved to Hollywood in 1960 and made his feature debut in 1963 on Elia Kazan's immigrant drama America, America. It brought instant acclaim and steady work.
Mr. Wexler remained active for decades. At 89, he received an Emmy nomination as the cameraman on Billy Crystal's 61*, the HBO film about Roger Maris' record-setting home run season. A few years earlier, Mr. Wexler himself was the subject of a documentary, Tell Them Who You Are, directed by another son, Mark Wexler.
"Movies are a voyeuristic experience," he once said. "You have to make the audience feel like they are peeking through a keyhole. I think of myself as the audience. Then I use light, framing, and motion to create a focal point."