Oscar: Cinematography–Academy’s Most Diverse and International Category?

Of all the Oscar categories, the one that has benefited the most from movies being a truly international medium is cinematography.

In no other field, foreign-born and foreign-trained artists have made as strong an impact as in lensing, a testament to Hollywood’s openness to creative influences from all over the world.

All Men

More than half of the Oscar-winning cameramen (yes, they are all men) have been foreign.

This group includes: Pasqualino De Santis (Romeo and Juliet), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It).

The Mexican artist, Emmanuel Lubezki, broke all records when he won the Best Cinematography Oscar in three consecutive years: Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant.

Weak Correlation with Best Picture

What’s most encouraging about this international dimension is that only 6 (20 percent) of the Oscar lensers have received the award for movies that have also won Best Picture Oscar. The vast majority are artists rewarded by their peer for good work in movies that are not necessarily “important” or Oscar-caliber.

Hence, Mikael Salomon won an Oscar for the underwater saga, The Abyss, (l989) and John Toll won for the historical melodrama, Legends of the Fall (l994), two movies that failed to receive Best Picture or other major nominations.

Similarly, when Red (1994) proved ineleigible for the foreign-language Oscar category (it was submitted by Switzerland, directed by a Pole, and spoke French), undeterred, Academy members in tghree branches nominated the film for its direction (Krzystof Kieslowski), original screenplay (Kiewslowski)–and cinematography (Piotr Sobinski).

While the “foreign factor” has been evident in almost every decade, the lensers’ nationality has changed, reflecting new trends and fashions in cinematography.

The 1930s

Foreign cinematographers made a sporadic appearance in the l930s, like Tony Gaudio (ne Gaetano), who won an Oscar in 1936 for Anthony Adverse. The German and Austrian emigres (Lubitsch, Von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann) tended to work with American lensers for the most part.

The 1940s

The most “patriotic” decade in the cinematography branch was the 1940s, the war era. Following the first color cinematography Oscar, given to Gone With the Wind’s Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan, most of the awards in the 1940s (in both the black-and-white and color divisions) were granted to American artists.

Arthur Miller

Miller (not to be confused with the playwright with such name) received three Oscars in that decade: How Green Was My Valley (1941–the year of Citizen Kane), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and Anna and the King of Siam (1946).

His respected colleague, Leon Shamroy also won three Oscars: The Black Swan, Wilson, and Leave Her to Heaven (1942, 1944, and 1945, respectively).

Yet like other Oscar catgeories, the field abounds with its own politics and peculiarities. Prominent American lenser Gregg Toland, who did revolutionary work in Citizen Kane (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), won for neither film–his one and only Oscar is for William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939).

British Invasion

The British influence became apparent in 1947, when Black Narcissus’ Jack Cardiff (who later became a director) won the color cinematography Oscar.

And it continued to be present in full volume in the 1950s and 1960s with Jack Hildyard (The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957), Freddie Francis (Sons and Lovers, 1960; Glory, 1989), Freddie A. Young (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962; Doctor Zhivago, 1965; Ryan’s Daughter, 1970–all David Lean epic pictures).

The work of Swedish ace lenser Sven Nykvist in Ingmar Bergman’s movies was well known in the l950s, but he received his first Oscar nomination and award as late as l973, for Cries and Whispers. His second Oscar arrived a decade later, in l983, also for a Bergman masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander.

Eastern European lensers began to leave their mark in the 1970s, with Hungarian Vilmos Zsigmond winning an Oscar for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The same decade also embraced Cuban master, Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for Terrence Malick’s exquisitely shot Days of Heaven (1978).

Italians were not represented in the Oscar contest until the late l960s, when Pasqualino De Santis won for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (l968). But they more than made up for it in the l980s, with the work of three-time winner, Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, 1979; Reds, 1981; The Last Emperor, 1987)

The last decade has been even more international than previous ones, with two Oscars for British lenser Chris Menges The Killing Fields, 1984; The Mission, 1986)–and a good chance for winning a third one this year, for Michael Collins; Frenchman Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, 1992); Polish Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, 1993).

Reflecting the recent popularty of Chinsese films in the U.S., the Academy has cited the work of Asian cinematographers Gu Changwei (Farewell My Concubine, 1993) and Lu Yue (Shanghai Triad, 1995).

In the past, one of the great ironies was that cameramen were seldom in the limelight. Lensers were sort of invisible performers, whose work was transparent to the audience, but didn’t call much attention to itself, conforming to the strictures of Classic Hollywood Cinema. But the New American Cinema of the late l960s and l970s–and the European masterpieces of the l950s and l960s–brought to the surface the works of first-rate lensers, who were perceived as artists deserving as much public and peer recognition as the filmmakers they collaborated with.

Star Lensers: Vittorio Storaro

The era of the international star lensers–the auteurist camermen–got a special boost when Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist, was unveiled in 1970. The visual gradeur of thie epic, orchestrated by Vittorio Storaro, was so integral to the narrative–providing such visceral visual pleasure–that it called attention and brought accolades to its master.

As always the case in Hollywood, great artists–directors, stars, and even technicians–are quickly imported and just as quickly coopted into the system. Storaro worked with Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now (l979), for which he won his first Oscar, and then with Warren Beatty on two big-budget movies: Reds (1981), his second Oscar, and Dick Tracy (1990), for which he won an Oscar nomination. This in addition to granering a third Oscar for Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (l987), whish swept all the Oscars that year.

The most recent example of effective cooptation is Red’s Piotr Sobocinski, who in l996 lensed two vert different features: the blockbuster thriller, Ransom, and the emotional family drama, Marvin’s Room.

Contrary to public notion, great cinematographers insist that their work has little to do with how the film looks and everything to do with how the film feels–or rather how the film makes the audience feel. Does it evoke the look of the era Does it capture the mood of the story Does it convey the changing emotions of the characters. Storaro was reportedly offended when a journalist in Cannes told him that Apocalypse Now was the most beautiful movie he has ever seen. No doubt, it was meant as a compliment, but the Italian artist would have much rather prefer people describe his work as dark, haunting, perverse, and distrubing–all tones that Coppola evoked in the story.

Neglecting American: Gordon Willis

American lensers have often suffered from the preference given to their foreign counterparts. A major talent like Gordon Willis failed to receive nominations for the first two Godfather movies, or, for that matter, for his black-and-white lensing of Woody Allen’s comedy classics, the Oscar-winning Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Some believe that Gordon’s lack of popularity within his branch was related to his close identification with New York, which may or may not be the case.

But the fact remains that Willis has received only two nominations, both rather late in his career: for the Woody Allen’s black-and-white Zelig (1983) and for Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III (1990).

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