Saturday, January 9, 2016

Haskell Wexler R.I.P.

Haskell Wexler, the Oscar winning cinematographer on such films as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976), died on December 27 2015 at the age of 93.

Haskell Wexler was born on February 6 1922 in Chicago. His father, Simon Wexler, was the founder of Allied Radio (now Allied Electronics). Mr. Wexler attended the University of California, but dropped out after a year to join the Merchant Marine. During the Second World War his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and he spent two weeks in a lifeboat with 20 other people.

After his stint in the Merchant Marine, Haskell Wexler made industrial films. Both his first cinematography and directorial credit was on the documentary short "The Living City" (1953). In the Fifties he served as a camera operator on such films as Picnic (1955) and Studs Lonigan (1960), and as an additional photographer on Wild River (1960). He served as a cinematographer on the short "T is for Tumbleweed" (1958) and the feature films Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), The Savage Eye (1960), and Five Bold Women (1960).

Arguably the Sixties would be the height of Haskell Wexler's career as a cinematographer. He shot such well known films as The Loved One (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Medium Cool (1969. He won the final Oscar ever awarded for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He also served as cinematographer on such films as The Runaway (1961), The Fisherman and His Soul (1961), The Hoodlum Priest (1961), Angel Baby (1961), Face in the Rain (1963), America America (1963), Lonnie (1963), The Best Man (1964), and One (1966). He directed the documentary The Bus (1965) and the feature film Medium Cool.

In the Seventies Haskell Wexler won his second Oscar for his work on Bound for Glory (1976). He was the original photographer for  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), but was replaced on the project by Bill Butler. He served as cinematographer on the films Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971), The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (1972), Introduction to the Enemy (1974), Underground (1976), Coming Home (1978), War Without Winners (1978), and No Nukes (1980). He also served as cinematographer on such industrial shorts as "Polaroid Glasses" (1976), "STP Oil Treatment" (1977), and "Plymouth Fury" (1977).  He directed the documentaries Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), Introduction to the Enemy (1974), Underground (1976), and War Without Winners (1978).

In the Eighties Haskell Wexler was the cinematographer on the films Second-Hand Hearts (1981), Hail Columbia! (1982), Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), Lookin' to Get Out (1982), The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Matewan (1987), Colours (1988), Three Fugitives (1989), and Blaze (1989). He directed the films Bus II (1983) and Latino (1985).

In the Nineties Mr. Wexler was cinematographer on the films Other People's Money (1991), The Babe (1992), The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas (1995), Canadian Bacon (1995), Mulholland Falls (1996), The Rich Man's Wife (1996), Limbo (1999), "Mexico" (2000), Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But the Mountains (2000), "The Man on Lincoln's Nose" (2000), and Bus Rider's Union (2000). He directed the film Bus Rider's Union (2000).

In the Naughts Haskell Wexler was cinematographer on the films "SOA: Guns and Greed" (2001), Silver City (2004), Bastards of the Party (2005), Who Needs Sleep? (2006), From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks (2007), In the Name of Democracy: The Story of Lt. Ehren Watada (2009), and Something's Gonna Live (2010). He directed Who Needs Sleep? (2006) and From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks (2007).

In the Teens he served as cinematographer Bringing King to China (2011), Occupy Los Angeles (2012), "Medium Cool Revisited" (2013), and Four Days in Chicago (2013). He directed the films "Medium Cool Revisited" (2013) and Four Days in Chicago (2013)

There can be no doubt that Haskell Wexler was one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. Influenced by La Nouvelle Vague, he brought that sensibility to both his Hollywood films and his documentaries. He pioneered both the use of handheld cameras and natural lighting in cinematography. Ultimately the commercial films he shot often had the look more of a documentaries than commercial features. Even when a film's subject matter was somewhat outré (such as The Loved One), Haskell Wexler's cinematography had the look of realism to it. What is more, he was exceedingly versatile. Some cinematographers are very good at shooting sunsets and landscapes, but not so good at shooting interiors. Haskell Wexler excelled at both. His cinematography on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is as impressive as his cinematography on Matewan.

Of course, Haskell Wexler was also a documentarian. In between the commercial films he made for Hollywood, he shot and often wrote and directed documentaries for those causes dear to him. What is more, Mr. Wexler did not simply make documentaries on the big issues of the day, such as the Civil Rights movement or Vietnam, but often issues the average person might not have been aware of. Who Needs Sleep? addressed the long hours and effects of sleep deprivation on set workers in Hollywood.

As a director Haskell Wexler was as skilled as a cinematographer. What is more, it was not simply his documentaries that displayed his skill as a director. His film Medium Cool is a classic that leaves one wishing Mr. Wexler had directed more narrative films. Medium Cool is utterly unique and was so even in the decade of the Sixties when unusual films were virtually the norm. Haskell Wexler would be remembered if his only accomplishment was Medium Cool. As it is he was one of the greatest cinematographers of all time and a documentarian of considerable skill. There had been no one like him before and it seems likely there will never be anyone like him again.

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