The climax is as astonishing as it is hilarious. In Zelig, Woody Allen’s mock documentary about a Jazz Age misfit, the crescendo occurs at a 1933 Hitler rally in Munich. There—in grainy, jumpy old newsreel footage—is Adolf, haranguing the Blackshirts. Behind him, on the podium, are his henchmen. Suddenly, in the midst of this scurvy crew, Leonard Zelig, a/k/a Woody Allen, appears in full Nazi regalia. He waves, smiling a sweetly nutty smile at his psychiatrist, whom he spots in the crowd. The Führer, clearly upset by this irreverent intruder, shoots a hate-filled glare, and a group of SS men pounce on Zelig. Such cinematic trickery, so amazing to movie audiences, is both the stock-in-trade and professional bane of Zelig’s master cinematographer, Gordon Willis. “The movie was a logistical nightmare,” he says. “I spent so much time in a dark screening room, I thought I was going borderline psycho.”
At 50, Willis may be the film industry’s premier illusionist. The critics have called Zelig “brilliant” and “magic.” No less impressive are Willis’ past accomplishments. As a cinematographer he has lighted, photographed and designed the “look” for some of the past decade’s most visually stunning films, including The Godfather I and II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall and Manhattan. “He’s an artist,” says Woody Allen. “He’s got a great sense of humor—he taught me a lot.”
None of Willis’ previous films, however, posed the challenges of Zelig, for which he had to mix old footage, newly shot film (both in color and black and white) and antique home movies. In the course of the comedy, Leonard Zelig, human chameleon and reluctant celebrity, is seen cavorting in old newsreels with the likes of Babe Ruth, Pope Pius XI and President Calvin Coolidge. All the new film footage of Allen and co-star Mia Farrow had to be made to look like those well-worn film clips from the ’20s and ’30s. “The irony,” observes Willis, “is that for two years we were busting our asses to perfect imperfection.”
Willis’ solution to the mix-and-match newsreel problem was “to scrounge through camera supply shops for lenses from that era. Then we attached those old lenses to modern equipment.” To make the new footage match the look of film that had been deteriorating for 50 or 60 years, he used a variety of chemical baths, as well as a few less-than-scientific methods—such as holding film under a shower and then stomping on it. Optical devices known as mattes were used to superimpose new images on vintage film, and many new scenes were painstakingly intercut with old footage.
Although the special effects in Zelig have been compared to those in Star Wars, Willis is quick to point out that they were all achieved with preexisting techniques. But the way the techniques were applied was stunningly inventive—the hallmark of a Gordon Willis film. Willis’ deft touches feed the eye and imagination: In Paper Chase John Houseman was the only actor shot in close-up, thereby enlarging his already commanding presence. In All the President’s Men Watergate-era Washington, D.C. was shot in sinister darkness and shadows, while scenes at the Washington Post were deliberately overexposed—making the Post newsroom look as if it shone with the light of the world.
Surprisingly, despite his contributions to such hits, one honor has thus far eluded Willis: an Academy Award nomination. “It’s easy to say there’s some kind of conspiracy,” says Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. “But I think the problem is that the Academy’s visual references have all been from the past and Gordon is today. I know he will be recognized eventually.” Yet another explanation is Bad Attitude. Willis, who lives in Saddle River, N.J. and prefers to work in New York, where he grew up, has never hidden his antipathy for Hollywood—the town and the life-style. “I don’t think it suffers from an overabundance of good taste,” he says. Besides, he adds, “I hate white shoes.” Willis also is savvy about the social politics that sometimes influence award-giving. “If people want to give me an award for a movie I’ve done, I’ll be thrilled. But if it’s for spending time on the golf course or attending dinner parties, then I don’t want it anyway.”
Willis’ exposure to show business came early. His parents were Broadway hoofers, and his father later became a makeup man at Warner Bros.’ Brooklyn studio. As a youngster, Willis hung around the set, and he even appeared in several shorts filmed there. Although he flirted with acting and did two seasons of summer stock in Gloucester, Mass., his abiding passion was for photography. While he was serving a stint in the Air Force, he made documentaries and met his wife, Helen, now the mother of their three grown children. Later, Willis “hacked” his way up the ladder, working on commercials and TV movies.
The only outright failure in his career was his directorial debut in the 1980 Elizabeth Ashley thriller, Windows, which took a clobbering from critics and passed away unmourned at the box office. Willis shudders at the memory, but says that “given an intelligent and literate script, I’d love to try directing again.” Currently, he is finishing work on Broadway Danny Rose, Woody Allen’s next comedy, to be released early in 1984.
Will Zelig at last bring Willis the recognition that so many industry insiders believe is his due? The movie maverick isn’t sure. “I never expect an Oscar nomination,” he says with a laugh. That’s not false modesty, just the voice of experience.