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The Poster Worker

Gold on Gold
Courtesy of Bill Gold

A new book celebrates Bill Gold, the greatest poster designer in Hollywood history.

When Bill Gold goes to the multiplex near his home in Old Greenwich, Conn., he shudders as he passes the rows of posters for upcoming movies. Having spent much of his life designing and defining the art of movie posters, he feels a sense of disappointment. "I can't believe they are doing so little," Gold says. "I can't believe they're not marketing the movie."

Gold, 90, spent six decades creating posters for such iconic films as Casablanca, My Fair Lady, Woodstock and every Clint Eastwood picture from Dirty Harry (1971) through Mystic River (2003), before his retirement in 2004. He laments the low expectations for today's posters. "They're just showing the actors, so every movie looks like the next one," he says. "If a man and a woman are next to each other, it must be a love story."

Gold did it his way beginning in 1942 as an employee of Warner Bros. and then from 1959 on with his own design company. His prodigious output is collected for the first time in the limited-edition art book Bill Gold Posterworks (Reel Art Press, London).

"Gold approached every single movie as a chance to advance the storytelling," says Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York design firm Pentagram and graphic design critic. "A static image, in theory, can't possibly have the same power as a 90-minute film, yet he could somehow encapsulate the adventure you are going to have in 90 minutes."


Although he's retired, Gold -- who lives with second wife, Susan, and has two children from his first marriage -- says he would consider consulting for the right project.

His legacy is so indelible that Warners held one of its most successful employee-information days ever when Gold came to speak at the historic Stephen J. Ross Theatre in March. Workers from all across the lot came -- including Warner Bros Pictures execs Sue Kroll and Blair Rich and a cavalcade of exec alumni -- to bask in the nostalgia that is as much what the studio sells as the Harry Potter movies.

A native of Brooklyn, Gold grew up loving movies. After graduating with a design degree from Pratt Institute in New York City, he didn't aspire to work in advertising like his classmates but instead sought out a movie company. That led him to Warners, where his first poster was for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942 and his second was for Casablanca. The art of poster design was his life, except for three years during World War II, when he made training films for the Army Air Force.

Sid Ganis, who headed advertising at Warners during the 1970s, recalls Gold as "a scrappy little creative, handsome man who had this great smile and very fertile advertising mind. It was so fertile he was a little ahead for that day -- certainly ahead of the day in terms of movie advertising." For many, memories of working with him are as strong as the work: In the intro to Posterworks, Clint Eastwood wrote, "With Bill I knew he would bring great ideas, and the poster he created would be one less thing we had to think about. He respected the film, he respected the story, and he always respected what we were trying to accomplish."

Gold played a significant role in the evolution of movie posters from simple advertising into an art form that is collected and studied. "I think I was responsible for changing them because I'm more interested in the stories," he says. Roger Huyssen, a former designer in Gold's studio says, "His work is the printed history of the movie business and will live forever."

A LIFE IN PICTURES: The Stories Behind Bill Gold's Most Famous Powers

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
For his first major studio release, it was important to Gold to emphasize the patriotism in the story of George M. Cohan. So he used bright American colors and incorporated the flag design as part of the Uncle Sam hat. He did all the lettering by hand then had a sign painter come in and color it at his direction. The "C" in James Cagney's name is the same type Gold used for Casablanca.

Dirty Harry (1971) and The Enforcer (1976)
For his first collaboration with Clint Eastwood, Gold saw the police detective's gun as a central image that he used in all of the poster variations. He exaggerated the size of the gun in the international and main U.S. posters. In the international, he used repeating images and "psychedelic" colors, which design critic Steven Heller praises for having "a pop art quality." The U.S. version shows the gun shooting through glass shattered by the bullet -- Gold's intent was "a low reveal," so Eastwood looked like he was entering from the side. "It's like showing a direction," Gold says, "and the direction leads to the cracked glass." The center poster with eight frames was a large-format one-sheet for theaters. 

Casablanca (1942)
Gold kept Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa separate to avoid giving away the romance because they don't get together until well into the movie. In an early version, there was no gun. Warner Bros. wanted more excitement, so he added the gun (which Rick uses briefly at the end). Gold did all the lettering by hand using a flat-pencil technique. Designer Michael Bierut praises Gold for "the amount of subtlety he brought to the image."

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Gold loved a photo taken during production of star and director Eastwood tenderly holding his 8-month-old daughter. He wanted that same feel for the poster of Eastwood and Meryl Streep but was worried he wouldn't be able to re-create the exact lighting or mood. So rather than shoot the stars together, he shot Streep separately with her head on an assistant's shoulder, with the same lighting. He then Photoshopped the images of the stars together.

Unforgiven (1992)
Gold created the images of Eastwood as gunfighter William Munny standing alone, back to the viewer, for an early teaser poster that went into theaters long before the movie. He retouched the photo, enlarged the gun and used hands and a head from different production photos. When Warners worried he might not be recognized, Eastwood said, "If people don't recognize me, they aren't going to see the movie anyway." Warners replied, "But we've paid so much money for these guys that we've got to show them." In the final poster, Gold added the faces -- what he calls "the Mount Rushmore effect" -- to satisfy the studio, but he didn't mind. Gold says he always had faith in "the compatibility of art and commerce."

Barry Lyndon (1975)
For Stanley Kubrick's 18th century costume drama, Gold flew to London for three weeks of intense discussions with the director. Kubrick insisted on having a special hand-lettered alphabet created, and Gold suggested the illustrated outer framing. After Gold returned home, he and Kubrick spoke by phone each day for weeks while a Warners messenger flew back and forth daily with sketches. Kubrick kept adding shading around each illustration to make it more distinctive. "It's fascinating," Ganis says. "Full of color. No copy other than the title." Nancy Goliger, who started out as Gold's assistant and rose to become an exec at Warners and Paramount, says: "Kubrick was as meticulous as Bill. They were evenly matched in their dedication to detail. They were both very controlling."

My Fair Lady (1969)
Studio boss Jack Warner personally oversaw the poster for one of the studio's most expensive ($17 million) movies to that point. Gold had loved the stage musical and had access to footage from the movie, which he shared with his frequent collaborator, artist Bob Peak, who did a series of charcoal drawings. Gold says he used Peak's "squiggles to get his juices flowing." After many efforts, Gold found things he liked and often asked Peak to embellish them, like adding the top of the umbrella. The final poster is a collage of the charcoal drawings, to which Gold added color. He designed the lettering style, trying more than 20 before finding one he liked, which he felt had the feel of the movie.

House of Wax (1953)
For the first major studio 3D release, Gold wanted to highlight the new format without showing the Polaroid glasses viewers had to wear -- so he showed the characters bursting from the screen. "Bill took the theater frame from the screen and showed you were going to see something totally different," Warners corporate archivist Leith Adams says. "You were going to see things coming out at you." The film went on to make $23.8 million, a major hit for the time.

Hair (1979)
Gold and illustrator Bob Peak did a lot of experimenting, including a picture of the sun coming through hair. He also played with different lettering styles. The image of the hair was deemed impractical for the main poster, but other images, which show how Gold assembled elements into the final poster, were used in the international marketing campaign.

Deliverance (1972)
Gold wasn't allowed to reference the rape scene but wanted to create a sense of the terror. This poster was used in the European campaign (the domestic poster showed hands emerging from the water, holding a rifle). The surreal image of a canoe coming out of an eyeball is meant to create tension and give an impression of three guys being watched by a hidden enemy. "It's a very literal thing," Bierut says. "It's three characters in the canoe, but framing it in that eye makes it clear that at the heart of this thing is something really, really frightening."

The Way We Were (1973)
Gold's poster for this Warners film was never used. In his version, he wanted to emphasize the two stars on a strip like one from a photo booth because "it's typical of how we think about the past," he says. He had to have Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand photographed separately, then he put them together on the film strip. "I liked that poster a lot," Gold says. Why didn't the studio use it? "Because they're stupid," he says bluntly.

The Sting (1973)
To capture the 1920s look of the movie, Gold took the approach used in The Saturday Evening Post developed by illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, for both the main poster and the alternate. "The texture of the clothing has a hand-painted quality," Gold says. "The whole feeling of the story is there." Gold also used the magazine's classic lettering style. Gold took the finished poster to a hospital where producer Julia Phillips had just given birth, and she loved it.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
"Gold photographed the boys in the Warner Brothers parking lot, walking toward the sun so you just got the silhouette," says Adams about the poster. Bierut notes that use of an exaggerated shadow has been copied many times since: "A lot of the things he pioneered came to define these kind of movies. It has been done many times since, including for all of the Ocean's films." 

Alien (1979)
Gold saw this as a new kind of science fiction film that cried out for a new kind of advertising. "We wanted to play with the word 'alien,' " he says. "We did a bunch of designs that suggested some sort of mysterious outer-space look. I didn't want it to be totally a spaceman in costume but wanted to suggest that." For one poster, Gold cut a hole in the eye area to show space coming through, with mouth open as if screaming. These were used as teaser posters.

Courtesy of Bill Gold
Courtesy of Bill Gold
Courtesy of Bill Gold
Courtesy of Bill Gold
Courtesy of Bill Gold

Mystic River (2003)
For his final campaign before retiring, Gold had a vision of the three men on a bridge by the river. He drew figures of the men reflected upside down and combined them with a photograph he took of ripples on the water along the shoreline near Stamford, Conn. "I wanted the river to look very real," says Gold.  Gold recalls Eastwood's reaction to the Mystic River poster "He was nuts about it."