For those who don’t know, the cinematographer is the person responsible for capturing the movie’s visual images. And Haskell Wexler was one of the best lensmen in the history of the craft. When he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996, it marked the first time in 35 years that one was awarded to a cinematographer.
During his prolific career, Wexler's camera caught the action for such iconic films as the 1968 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Bound for Glory,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Matewan,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
He was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two, one in 1966, the last Oscar specially awarded for black-and-white cinematography, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and in 1976 for “Bound for Glory.”
When he won his 1966 Oscar, he surprised everyone by saying, “I hope we can use our art for love and peace,” instead of the usual thank you speech, according to a 1967 Los Angeles Times article.
Wexler was a longtime member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), an honorary guild whose members are invited to join based on the body of their work. In 1993, he received the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As a pioneer of the cinema verite style for feature films, Wexler’s 1969 “Medium Cool,” which he also wrote and directed, influenced the next generation of filmmakers. In a 1969 review, The Times' movie critic Charles Champlin said the film "is about a good many things in our society; poverty, loneliness, frustration, racial fears and racial hatreds, glibness and easy distraction, the angers of youth, the distresses of maturity. But what it is really about is how TV’s detached retina sees all of this and more, and less, and how it puts us in the picture, or doesn’t.”
Because of the language and sex, the film was initially rated “X,” but was changed to “R” in July of the following year. The making of the film was the subject of a BBC documentary, “Look Out Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of Medium Cool.”
Wexler never shied away from politically sensitive subjects. In 1975, he and three other filmmakers, including his son Jeff, were subpoenaed to testify about making a film with fugitives from the Weather Underground wanted at the time for terrorist acts. At a press conference held after the subpoenas were withdrawn, Wexler joined in to say they were unable to complete the film for fear that the FBI would seize the footage already shot.
“In addition to presenting the positions of the Weather Underground, we believe this film will expose aspects of a secret government, a repressive complex which existed before Watergate and continues after,” Wexler told the the Los Angeles Times in 1975.
Wexler’s oeuvre also included numerous documentaries, such as the Emmy Award-winning 1980 “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang”; the 1971 Academy Award-winning short “Interview With My Lai Veterans”; “Latino,” chosen for the 1985 Cannes Film Festival; and a look at the life of labor activist Harry Bridges, “From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks.”
In the 2004 documentary “Tell Them Who You Are,” Wexler’s son Mark turns the camera on his legendary father. The film features interviews with Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, but it’s Haskell himself who provides most of the fireworks, especially when he claims that he could have done a better job directing most of the movies he had shot.
More recently, Wexler, who was a board member of the International Cinematographers Guild, returned to social commentary with the 2006 documentary “Who Needs Sleep?,” which addressed the movie industry problem of sleep deprivation among film crews who must work excessively long hours.
Wexler died Dec. 27, 2015, at a hospital in Santa Monica. He was 93.
|1966||Best Cinematography - Black and White||Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?||Win|
|1975||Best Cinematography||One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest||Nomination*|
|1976||Best Cinematography||Bound for Glory||Win|