Haskell Wexler, 'Cuckoo’s Nest' Cinematographer, Dies at 93

Haskell Wexler
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

The five-time Oscar nominee won for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and 'Bound for Glory' and was the mastermind behind the landmark 'Medium Cool.'

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the socially conscious two-time Academy Award winner who lensed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and many other masterpieces, has died. He was 93.

Wexler died in his sleep Sunday at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, his son, Oscar-nominated sound man Jeff Wexler, told The Hollywood Reporter.

On his website, Jeff posted: "It is with great sadness that I have to report that my father, Haskell Wexler, has died. Pop died peacefully in his sleep, Sunday, December 27th, 2015.  Accepting the Academy Award in 1967, Pop said: 'I hope we can use our art for peace and for love.' An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on."

One of the most influential American cinematographers of all time, Wexler nabbed his first Oscar for making Elizabeth Taylor look haggard in black and white for director Mike Nichols in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He garnered a second trophy 10 years later for his work on Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie during his Dust Bowl years.

The Chicago legend also finished shooting Terrence Malick’s spectacular Days of Heaven (1978), for which Nestor Almendros received the cinematography Oscar, and photographed the Oscar-winning short-subject documentary Interviews With My Lai Veterans (1971).

Wexler’s other Oscar nominations came for Milos Forman’s best-picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), John Sayles coal-mining drama Matewan (1987) and Ron Shelton’s Huey Long biopic Blaze (1989). For the latter, he was given the American Society of Cinematographers' top honor that year, and the organization honored him with its Lifetime Achieve Award in 1993.

Wexler also worked as director of photography on Gore Vidal’s political gem The Best Man (1964); Norman Jewison’s best picture winner In the Heat of the Night (1967); the three-time Oscar winner Coming Home (1978); the comeback documentary Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982); and Lee Tamahori’s gritty Mulholland Falls (1995).

For American Graffiti (1973), he served as supervising cameraman and visual consultant after meeting George Lucas at a race track and giving him a recommendation that helped him get into USC’s film school. He shot the paranoid Union Square sequence at the start of The Conversation (1967) before being fired by Francis Ford Coppola. And he did the music videos for Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and “Thunder Road” as well as a breakthrough Imax concert film for The Rolling Stones.

Wexler was politically minded and ventured into directing a number of documentaries with social and political themes. His documentaries include Introduction to the Enemy (1974), shot in Vietnam with Jane Fonda; No Nukes (1980); and Target Nicaragua: Inside a Covert War (1983), directed by Saul Landau. He wrote, directed and co-produced the feature film Latino (1985) and lensed the Michael Moore satire Canadian Bacon (1995).

Along this theme of social consciousness, Wexler attracted national attention for writing, directing and producing Medium Cool, the groundbreaking 1969 film that blended fiction with the reality of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National convention held in his hometown. Famously, he’s seen — behind a camera, of course — on the screen at the end.

He married actress Rita Taggart in 1989. She survives him, as does his sister Joyce Isaacs and his other children Kathy and Mark.

Wexler was born Feb. 6, 1922, in Chicago and attended the University of California at Berkeley for a year before joining the Merchant Marine. He stayed at sea for five years, rising to the rank of second officer.

Upon his discharge, Wexler returned to the Windy City, where he spent 10 years making documentary and educational films before heading back to California.

He shot his first feature, Irvin Kershner’s Stakeout on Dope Street (his brother Yale starred as one of the teenagers who finds a stash of heroin in the film), under the pseudonym Mark Andrews in 1958, then followed with the dark, documentary-style film The Savage Eye (1960) and two films released in 1961: Kershner’s Hoodlum Priest and Angel Baby.

Always politically concerned, it was not surprising that he hooked up with Elia Kazan to shoot America, America (1963), a black-and-white tale about a Greek immigrant that was based on the controversial director’s book.

Wexler went on to win accolades for the comedy The Loved One (1965) for British director Tony Richardson. His framings and satirical sensibility were crucial in visualizing the film’s lampoon of Hollywood moviemaking and, specifically, the Forest Lawn-style burial industry in Southern California.

For Virginia Woolf, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s dark stage masterpiece, Wexler was brought in to render the drama in the melancholy, anxiety-ridden blacks and greys that mirror Martha (Taylor) and George’s (Richard Burton) bitterness toward each another. (Harry Stradling, a veteran of color photography, planned most of the film.)

“There were serious complaints when we were shooting back east, that it was too dark, and they knew that I was inexperienced,” Wexler recalled in a conversation with Russian cinematographer Yuri Neyman. “There might have been some political background. It was a pretty serious thing. At one point, Mike Nichols said later on, ‘I think it’s too dark.’

“So I did increase fill light a little bit. After the film, Mike Nichols gave me a photograph in this silver frame, but there was nothing in the photograph. The photograph was all black in this silver frame. And he wrote, ‘It’s too dark, Haskell.’ ”

Bound for Glory was the first feature to make use of the newly invented Steadicam, and Wexler employed the tool for a landmark two-minute shot that trailed and then led David Carradine, who played Guthrie, through a crowd of migrant workers in Stockton, Calif.

In an eerie portend to the Midnight Rider disaster that killed crewmember Sarah Jones last year, Wexler said he also was challenged by the film’s shoots involving a moving train. “Physically, working around trains can be dangerous, especially when you’re going fast,” Wexler said. “But having worked on all kinds of documentaries and just being fearless when I’m behind the camera, it was not seriously dangerous. It was just exciting.”

Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, said that Wexler’s work “has always been an inspiration to so many of us not only in the guild, but in the entire industry.”

Poster noted that Wexler joined the guild in 1947, served on the Local 600 board for many years and attended a meeting as recently as October. “He fought vigorously for a better quality of life for the members, particularly around the issue of long hours,” Poster said. “He was a force to be reckoned with.”

In addition to In the Heat of the Night, Wexler shot two other films for Jewison — the luxuriant The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Other People’s Money (1991) — and photographed Colors (1998) for Dennis Hopper and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) for Sayles.

More recently, he directed or did the cinematography on documentaries like Who Needs Sleep (2006), about the potentially deadly consequences of working long hours. He also shot Billy Crystal’s 2001 historical telefilm 61* and a 2007 episode of Big Love, both for HBO.

Wexler, who often said he was profoundly influenced by French master Jean-Luc Godard (the Breathless filmmaker once stayed at Wexler’s home for a few days but said little), is the rare cinematographer with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He represented the cinematographers' branch on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For Wexler, Medium Cool, set amid the confrontations between Mayor Richard Daley’s police force and Vietnam War protestors during the 1968 Democratic Convention, was a stylistic breakthrough and a popular hit, especially on college campuses.

“There was total confusion and everybody had a camera. There were newsreel and TV cameras everywhere. We just added one more,” Wexler told fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert in a 1969 interview. “We waded into the crowds, and nobody even noticed.

“I gave my lead actor (Robert Forster, who plays the TV cameraman) an inoperative camera — just a housing without a motor. Then he went in as a ‘real’ cameraman and we photographed him.

“The summer of 1968 in Chicago was the most unreal thing that ever happened. People say they make movies to show what ‘really happens.’ But they only show what they choose to show. In Medium Cool, I’m not trying to say this is the 100 percent honest truth. That’s why my face is up there on the screen at the end — I’m the guy behind the second camera. I’m saying this is my statement, and if you like it, fine, and if you don’t, fine.” 

Duane Byrge and Arlene Washington contributed  to this report.

Twitter.com: @mikebarnes4

 

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