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Haskell Wexler, 1922 - 2015

David here. As time runs out on 2015, the world sees the loss of another cinematic great. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, double Oscar winner, passed away today. [More...]


 Wexler has a place in Oscar history not just for his two Oscar wins, but by virtue of the fact that he was the last ever winner of the prize for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White - his triumph for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? marked the last time AMPAS gave that Oscar before the categories merged into one, what with black and white cinematography fast becoming endangered. Nevermind that ...Virginia Woolf? is one of the greatest examples of how much richness there is within monochrome photography; a dynamic portrait of fading glory that felt every bit as revolutionary as the other New Hollywood films emerging around it.

Across his sixty year career, Wexler worked with some of the greatest Hollywood directors, including Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols and Miloš Forman, and was part of the revolutionary changes of 1960s Hollywood, captured so well in books like Mark Harris' indispensible Pictures at a Revolution. Harris' path crosses with Wexler's work on In the Heat of the Night, and in describing the modifications he made to capture Sidney Poitier's skin in the same detail as his white co-stars, Harris demonstrates how Wexler's work was both beautiful and revolutionary.

A mere glimpse at Wexler's website makes it clear how this great's passion for social justice had not faded with age; his last post, 'Random Thoughts on the war.', posted on 24 November, rings with continued disillusion with the government and a lasting plea for peace. One of the key works in Wexler's legacy, written, directed and shot by him and called Medium Cool, was one of the most vital and prescient works that felt ahead of its contemporaries like Easy Rider in how it looked self-reflexively on the act of filmmaking itself and sparked with political feeling. 

The best way to represent Haskell Wexler's work, of course, is in pictures, so I'll get along to shutting up now. The scene that I'll always remember most fondly is the legendary chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair - the most sophisticated of eye-sex scenes you're ever likely to come across, and, in its remarkable sexual imagery, fits right in to the rapidly shifting social landscape of the period, even in one of his most frivolous credits. (The Hollywood Interview has a great quote from Wexler on how this scene came about: "it said on the script, it said, 'They play chess with sex'"...)



Your own favourite, of course, may be taken from any one of Wexler's remarkable filmography. Share your picks in the comments and pay tribute to this late legend.

America America (1963)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) - Oscar win

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Medium Cool (1969)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
- Oscar nomination (shared with Bill Butler)

courtesy @willmckinleyBound for Glory (1976) - Oscar win

Coming Home (1978)

courtesy @craigaryMatewan (1987) - Oscar nomination

Blaze (1989) - Oscar nomination

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Reader Comments (9)

Such a great talent. So much terrific work to choose from but Medium Cool was so ahead of its time I think that alone is quite a legacy.

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

He also shot some of Days of Heaven as he got credit but not full credit for his work.

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

What an outstanding cinematographer. And, albeit more less relevant, what an awesome name the guy had!

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

I believe you mean Steve McQueen, not Paul Newman in the scene with Faye Dunaway in "The Thomas Crown Affair."

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

@ Patryk: You're right, apologies. Newman on the brain, thanks to the shot of Blaze.

@ Steven: I would have included a shot of Days of Heaven but I didn't want to credit him for a shot he wasn't involved with, as he took over from Almendros near the end. Seamless transition between the two nevertheless, and seminal work.

December 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterDave

Such a brilliant talent in the many list of names we keep losing. By chance I've watched Bound for Glory, Medium Cool and Virginia Woolf within the last two weeks and each of them are wonderful pieces of cinematography by the man. Wexler really was the best and the fact he's gone know feels so wrong.

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

Wexler was responsible for film masterpieces that will influence cinematographers and directors in the future, as well as entertain anyone who sees his work. He was a giant and I'm glad to have seen so much of his filmography.

December 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Bound for Glory is a beauty and I love the use of color in In the Heat of the Night. So sexy and dramatic.

December 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

"[Mark] Harris' path crosses with Wexler's work on In the Heat of the Night, and in describing the modifications he made to capture Sidney Poitier's skin in the same detail as his white co-stars, Harris demonstrates how Wexler's work was both beautiful and revolutionary."

I love this sentence. And Wexler wasn't even nominated for In the Heat of the Night! Ugh. But at least he won two Oscars. RIP to a true master, Haskell Wexler.

December 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

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