GORDON WILLIS, ‘GODFATHER’ CINEMATOGRAPHER
The cause was metastatic cancer, his son Gordon Willis Jr. said.
Mr. Willis created some of the most indelible cinematic imagery of the ‘70s — or of any decade, for that matter — giving narrative propulsion to adventurous screenplays while expressing the moral ambiguities at the heart of so many of that decade’s films and of the society they mirrored.
Three films that he shot — Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974) and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1977) — won the Academy Award for best picture.
Yet Mr. Willis, a native New Yorker who chose to live on the East Coast, harbored an antipathy toward Hollywood that may have been mutual. From 1971 to 1977, seven films he photographed earned a total of 39 Oscar nominations, 19 of which won the award. He received not one of those nominations, to the astonishment of many of the peers he influenced.
”If there were a Mount Rushmore for cinematographers, Gordon’s features would surely be chiseled into the rock face,” said Stephen Pizzello, the editor in chief and publisher of American Cinematographer magazine.
Ultimately, Mr. Willis got two Oscar nominations for his cinematography — for Mr. Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III” (1990) and Mr. Allen’s “Zelig” (1983), but won neither — and he received an honorary Oscar in 2009.
The cinematographer Conrad Hall called Mr. Willis “the prince of darkness” for his daring use of minimalist light and embrace of shadows. It was fully on display in “The Godfather,” in the haunted look of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and in the gothic composition of Don Corleone’s study, and in the lush, romanticized images of Mr. Allen’s beloved Manhattan in the bittersweet 1979 comedy of the same name.
Shot in convention-defying wide-screen, 35-millimeter black and white, “Manhattan,” as much as any Willis film, showed the emotional impact that a cinematographer can have.
Mr. Willis worked in almost all genres, including westerns (“Bad Company,” “Comes a Horseman”), screwball comedies (“The Money Pit”) and period pieces (Mr. Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo”). Some, like Herb Ross’s “Pennies From Heaven” (1981), with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, defied conventions, mixing elements of romance, dark drama and Depression-era Hollywood musical.
Mr. Willis collaborated with the director Alan J. Pakula on six films, three of which — “Klute” (1971), “The Parallax View” (1974) and “All the President’s Men” (1976) — established the paranoid thriller as a subgenre of American cinema.
Mr. Willis made virtuoso use of darkness in those films, alternating it with a stark white light that implied more than it revealed. “The Parallax View,” one of his signature achievements, was a tale of political assassination starring Warren Beatty in which Mr. Willis used the made-for-TV brilliance of a political convention as counterpoint to the shadowy corporate realities that lay behind the scenes.
Like many of the films he made during the 1970s, “The Parallax View” reflected a national spiritual unease. So did “All the President’s Men.” The way Mr. Willis lighted and shot the Washington parking garages where the reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) met clandestinely with the anonymous source known as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) — with an American presidency in the balance — suggested both the antiseptic angst of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” from 1968 and the German expressionist terror of F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” from 1922.
Mr. Willis could be playful as well. In “Zelig” (1983) — one of eight films he made with Mr. Allen, his most frequent collaborator — he used hand-cranked cameras, an assortments of film stocks and his own sleight-of-hand to impose Mr. Allen’s nebbishy title character into the major moments of the 20th century. The comedy was largely visual, and Mr. Willis created the kind of plausible imagery that allowed the comedic ideas to work.
Mr. Willis was known for his mechanical innovations as well. For “All the President’s Men,” he placed a winch in the dome of the Library of Congress so that a remote-controlled camera could be sent aloft from a desktop, providing, in a single shot, a full view of the library.
But it was his celebrated use of light that he was most often asked about, particularly in “The Godfather.” He spoke about it in 1995, when he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
“People said, ‘You can’t see his eyes,’ “ he remarked, referring to Brando’s Don Corleone. “Well, you didn’t see his eyes in 10 percent of the movie, and there was a reason why. I remember asking: ‘Why do you have to see his eyes in that scene? Based on what?’ Do you know what the answer was? ‘That’s the way it was done in Hollywood.’ ”
“That’s not a good enough reason,” he continued. “There were times when we didn’t want the audience to see what was going on in there, and then, suddenly, you let them see into his soul for a while.”
Gordon Hugh Willis was born in Astoria, Queens, on May 28, 1931, the child of former Broadway dancers. Young Gordon grew up loving movies and wanting to be an actor, but after performing in some summer stock productions he gravitated toward stage design, theater lighting and ultimately photography.
He began his photography career by shooting portfolio pictures for models he had met when his family lived in Greenwich Village and his father worked as a makeup man at the Warner Brothers studio in Brooklyn.
“I was going to be a fashion photographer!” he told an interviewer in 2009. “I was dumber than dirt, as they say. No money, no jobs, etc. Meanwhile my father had some friends that got me some jobs as a gofer on some movies that were passing through.”
The experience paid off. At the start of the Korean War, Mr. Willis joined the Air Force, which assigned him to a documentary motion picture unit. On his discharge he got into the cinematographers union in New York and began working as an assistant cameraman.
After working in television and doing television commercials, he got his first chance to shoot a feature film when the maverick director Aram Avakian asked him to direct photography for “End of the Road” (1970), a black comedy, with Stacy Keach, adapted from a John Barth novel and set on a “farm” for the mentally ill. The film found an art-house following in later years. Among his other early films was “The Landlord,” the feature debut of Hal Ashby.
Mr. Willis retired after shooting his final film for Mr. Pakula, “The Devil’s Own,” a crime thriller with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt released in 1997. (Mr. Pakula died the next year in an automobile accident.)
In addition to his son Gordon, Mr. Willis is survived by his wife, the former Helen Stubsten; another son, Timothy; a daughter, Susan Willis; and five grandchildren.
A direct influence on cinematographers like Michael Chapman (“Raging Bull”) and John Bailey (“The Big Chill”), Mr. Willis would say that in preparing a film, a director of photography has to “fit the punishment to the crime” — that is, find a way into the material that feels artistically and aesthetically appropriate.
“The truth of the matter is, everybody tends to reduce or expand things to a level that they understand,” he said in a 2009 interview with John Lingan of Splice Today. “Two people can look at the same thing, they don’t necessarily see the same thing. Whatever happens on the screen really comes out of you. There’s no formula.”
JERRY VALE, WHO CROONED SMOOTHLY OF LOVE
His family confirmed his death.
Mr. Vale rose to stardom performing in supper clubs as a teenager, hitting the charts for the first time in 1953 with “You Can Never Give Me Back My Heart.” He was a fixture at Columbia Records, where he recorded more than 50 albums and had hits with songs like “Two Purple Shadows” and “Al Di La.” His biggest hit, “You Don’t Know Me,” peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1956.
Like so many of his fellow crooners — among them Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Perry Como — Mr. Vale was Italian-American, and he helped popularize romantic Italian songs for American listeners with renditions of “Innamorata (Sweetheart)” in 1956 and “I Have but One Heart” in 1962.
As a teenager, he worked as an oiler alongside his father, an engineer, on excavations for projects like a sewage plant in Oyster Bay, on Long Island. “But then I got a break singing,” he said in a radio interview in 1984. “So, thank God, I made the right decision.”
Mr. Vale got his big break in 1950 while working at the Enchanted Room in Yonkers. There he met the singer Guy Mitchell, who arranged an audition for him with Mitch Miller, head of artists and repertoire at Columbia. He was signed to a contract and changed his name — he was born Genaro Louis Vitaliano — and his career was launched.
That career took him to Carnegie Hall as well as the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where he met and worked with the stars of his time, among them Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole.
His autobiography, “Jerry Vale: A Singer’s Life,” written with Richard Grudens, was published in 2000. In it, he recalled meeting his longtime idol, Sinatra, in the early 1950s at Lindy’s Restaurant in New York City, a magnet for show business talent. When they were introduced, Sinatra stood up, an unusual gesture for big stars at the time. It stunned Mr. Vale.
“A few years ago I had heard so many negative stories about Frank that I was somewhat apprehensive to approach him,” he said. “To my absolute surprise, he wound up being quite amiable, and the most caring individual that I have ever known.”
The two became fast friends. Sinatra, who was a partner in the Sands Hotel, helped Mr. Vale get his first gig there, a two-week engagement that was extended to 22 weeks after an owner, Jack Entratter, heard Mr. Vale’s voice.
After Mr. Vale and his wife, Rita, moved to California, the two became a constant presence at Sinatra’s ranch in Rancho Mirage. He took part in the annual Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament for several years and once performed at the event in 1996.
In 1963 he hired a 40-piece band and eight background singers to record the national anthem. The recording became a fixture at sporting events for years and was the first song inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Mr. Vale made cameo appearances as himself in the films “Goodfellas” (1990) and “Casino” (1995), both directed by Martin Scorsese, and in the television series “The Sopranos.”
He was born on July 8, 1930, in the Bronx. In 1959 he married Rita Grapel, an actress who appeared on the television dramatic anthology series “Studio One in Hollywood” on CBS and “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse” on NBC and in the 1952 film “The Thief.”
She survives him, as do their son, a daughter and three grandchildren.
An earlier version of this obituary misidentified the person who signed Mr. Vale to a recording contract. He was signed by Mitch Miller, not by Guy Mitchell.
An obituary in some late editions on Monday about the singer Jerry Vale misspelled the surname of an owner of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where Mr. Vale performed early in his career. He was Jack Entratter, not Enratter. The obituary also misstated the maiden name of Mr. Vale’s wife. She was Rita Grapel, not Vale.