Haskell Wexler, Oscar-winning cinematographer, dies at 93
Los Angeles Times
By Dennis McLellan and Jack Dolan
December 27, 2015
Haskell Wexler, a two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer — for “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory” — and the writer-director of the landmark 1969 film “Medium Cool,” died Sunday morning. He was 93.
Wexler, a lifelong liberal political activist who made documentaries that reflected his social and political concerns throughout his more than six-decade career, died peacefully in his sleep at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said his son, Jeff Wexler.
“His real passion was much larger than just making movies,” Wexler said of his father. “His real passion was for human beings, and justice, and peace.”
One of the few cinematographers to have received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (in 1996), Wexler won his first Oscar for his black-and-white photography on “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” director Mike Nichols' 1966 debut film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
He won his second Oscar for “Bound for Glory,” director Hal Ashby's 1976 movie starring David Carradine as legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Wexler also won Oscar nominations for best cinematography for the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (shared with Bill Butler), “Matewan” (1987) and “Blaze” (1989).
Among Wexler's other feature film credits as a cinematographer are “America, America,” “The Loved One,” “The Best Man,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Coming Home,” “Colors” and “The Babe.”
He also was visual consultant on George Lucas' 1973 classic “American Graffiti.” And he received an “additional photography” credit on Terrence Malick's 1978 film “Days of Heaven,” for which cinematographer Nestor Almendros won an Oscar.
Wexler made his feature-film directorial debut with “Medium Cool,” a low-budget 1969 film that he wrote and for which he served as the director of photography and was a producer.
Described by Wexler as “a wedding between features and cinema verite,” the drama about an emotionally detached TV news cameraman was partially shot in Chicago during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Considered “a seminal film of '60s independent cinema,” “Medium Cool” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2003.
Wexler also directed and wrote the 1985 feature film “Latino,” a war drama shot in Nicaragua that movie critic Michael Wilmington described as “an indictment of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua that pulls no philosophical punches and was made under conditions of real danger, near actual battle zones.”
Once named one of the 10 most influential cinematographers in movie history in a survey of International Cinematographers Guild members, Wexler became the first active cameraman to receive the American Society of Cinematographer's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
“His body of work is exceptional,” ASC President William A. Fraker said at the time. “He has already made a lasting impact.”
Describing his camera work in a 1993 interview with American Cinematographer magazine, Wexler said, “Movies are a voyeuristic experience. 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.”
As a cinematographer, Wexler was known for being difficult — as several filmmakers attested to in “Tell Them Who You Are,” the highly personal 2004 documentary on Wexler made by his son, Mark, himself a target of his father's prickly nature.
Wexler was fired from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” more than halfway through shooting because, according to director Milos Forman, “He was sharing his frustrations with the actors.”
Michael Douglas, who was one of the producers of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” said in the documentary: “He reminds me of my own father: critical and judging.”
For his part, Wexler said in the documentary: “As a director of photography, I always have worked as if it's my film. I don't think there is a movie that I've been on that I wasn't sure I could direct it better. But certainly also, as a director of photography, I have to serve the movie in whatever way I can as a filmmaker.”
A child of wealth — his father made a fortune in electronics and continued to prosper during the Depression — Wexler was born Feb. 6, 1922, in Chicago.
Despite his privileged background, he demonstrated his lifelong rebellious streak and political bent at 17 when he helped organize a workers' strike in his father's electronics factory.
After a year at UC Berkeley, Wexler dropped out in 1941 and joined the merchant marine. By the end of World War II, he had become a second officer and had survived 10 days in a lifeboat with 20 other merchant seaman after their supply ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean.
Back home after the war, Wexler's father asked him what he wanted to do.
“I thought of something really outlandish,” Wexler recalled in the 1993 interview with American Cinematographer. “I told him I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
Although he had previously only shot home movies with his father's 16-millimeter camera, Wexler received financial backing from his father to open a small movie studio in Des Plaines, Ill.
He produced an industrial film for an Alabama mill company, “Half Century With Cotton,” but the filmmaking enterprise was not a success. Wexler closed his studio in 1947 and began working as a freelance assistant cameraman on industrial, educational and other films.
By the late '50s, he had begun amassing feature film credits as a cinematographer.
In the mid-1970s, Wexler and a friend, Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, launched a TV commercial company. Between shooting feature films, Wexler directed and shot commercials for products such as Miller Beer, STP and, most memorably, for Great Western Savings & Loan with John Wayne.
In 2001, he received an Emmy nomination in 2001 for outstanding cinematography for a mini-series or movie for “61,” the Billy Crystal-directed HBO film about New York Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris' quest to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.
More recently, he addressed the movie industry problem of sleep deprivation among film crews who must work excessively long hours in the 2006 documentary “Who Needs Sleep?”
Born: 2/6/1922, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
Died: 12/27/2015, Santa Monica, California, U.S.A.
Haskell Wexler’s western – cinematographer, photographer:
Five Bold Women – 1960 [cinematographer]
Days of Heave – 1978 [photographer]