Haskell Wexler, who was renowned as one of the most inventive cinematographers in Hollywood and an outspoken political firebrand, died on Sunday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his son Jeff.
With two Academy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Mr. Wexler was a prominent member of the artistic elite. But he was also a lifelong advocate of progressive causes whose landmark “Medium Cool” — a fiction film shot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — demolished boundaries between documentary and fiction, reflecting his refusal to recognize limitations in either art or politics.
Mr. Wexler received the last Oscar that would be given for black-and-white cinematography, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). He won again a decade later for “Bound for Glory” (1976), a biography of the folk singer Woody Guthrie (whom Mr. Wexler had met during World War II, when both served in the merchant marine). He had five Oscar nominations in all, over a career that began more than auspiciously: His first genuine credit was on an Oscar-nominated 1953 documentary short, “The Living City.”
Among his many other honors, Mr. Wexler received an Independent Spirit Award for “Matewan” (1987), about West Virginia coal miners, the first of four films he would shoot for the director John Sayles and the producer Maggie Renzi. In an interview for this obituary, Ms. Renzi recalled trying to hire Mr. Wexler for the film.
“We got back to the Econo Lodge from a long location scout,” she said, “and the lady at the desk said, in her deep West Virginia accent: ‘A fella named Hacksaw Wexler called for you. From a phone in his car. He says, ‘Tell them whatever they want the answer is yes.’”
Mr. Wexler was a member of a rare Hollywood breed, the celebrity cinematographer.
He collaborated with many of the best-known directors of his times, beginning with Elia Kazan in 1963 (“America, America”) and including Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, Hal Ashby, Norman Jewison and George Lucas, who credited Mr. Wexler as “visual consultant” on his breakthrough 1973 comedy, “American Graffiti.” In “Tell Them Who You Are” (2005), a documentary about Mr. Wexler directed by his son Mark, Ron Howard, one of the stars of “American Graffiti,” recalled the making of that film:
“Everybody involved on the acting side didn’t know much about George Lucas,” Mr. Howard said, “but was very impressed that Haskell Wexler was killing himself to come work on this movie. I mean, it was insane. He would shoot a commercial during the day in Los Angeles, then fly to San Francisco, drive to Marin County, work there till dawn and then go get on a plane. And not once in a while. He was doing this three or four nights a week.”
Mr. Sayles said Mr. Wexler was one of the few cinematographers whose first reaction to a script was not about lighting the scenes (“which he did beautifully, with an incredibly high speed-to-skill ratio”) but to discuss what the story was about — thematically, morally, politically. “A lot of directors find this to be a problem,” Mr. Sayles said in an interview in 2010. “But as Haskell would say, ‘There are no problems, only opportunities.’ ”
Mr. Wexler was known for his signature use of contrasts and shadows: He was colorblind, so he worked differently from others in his field, especially after color became dominant.
“I remember turning the TV on and seeing an empty backyard, in black and white, and thinking ‘Haskell Wexler shot this,’ ” Mr. Sayles said. “Sure enough, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton sloshed out into the scene, in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Just something about the depth, the layers of light, very natural but very alive.”
Mr. Wexler directed a documentary, “Who Needs Sleep?” (2006), that examined the routine overworking of Hollywood film crews (and, by extension, America’s 24/7 work ethic), and he seemed to sleep little himself. In addition to the studio features he shot over the years (“In the Heat of the Night,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Coming Home”) he worked on non-mainstream fare like Michael Moore’s satire “Canadian Bacon” and Frank Zappa’s unfinished “Uncle Meat.” He also directed a dozen documentaries, whose titles indicated his point of view: “Brazil: A Report on Torture” (with Saul Landau, 1971), “War Without Winners” (1978), “Latino” (1985), “Bus Riders Union” (with Johanna Demetrakas, 2000).
Mr. Wexler, who described himself as a radical, believed that his work on the documentary “Underground” (1976), which featured interviews with members of the Weather Underground who were fugitives at the time, led to his dismissal as director of photography on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), a film that would go on to win five Academy Awards. But the director of that film, Mr. Forman, said the dismissal actually stemmed from artistic differences, adding that Mr. Wexler was difficult to work with.
“I was devastated,” Mr. Wexler said in a 2010 interview for this obituary. “There’s only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn’t shoot.” (Mr. Wexler and Bill Butler received Oscar nominations for the film’s cinematography.)
Born in Chicago on Feb. 6, 1922, to Lottie and Simon Wexler — his father was the founder of Allied Radio, a mail-order and retail electronics firm — Mr. Wexler grew up in a household both affluent and left-leaning.Photo
“When Paul Robeson came to town he stayed at our house,” Mr. Wexler said in 2010. “We had civil rights discussions early on and were actively supporting the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, less hostile relations with the Soviet Union, supporting the federal anti-lynching law.”
Mr. Wexler attended the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out after a year and joined the merchant marine. During World War II, the ship he was on was sunk by German torpedoes, and Mr. Wexler spent nearly two weeks in a lifeboat with 20 other people.
“And it was a terrible experience,” he recalled. “They say when people get close to death, as we were, it probably has some effect on you.”
Mr. Sayles said Mr. Wexler had once told him the story of being torpedoed. “He said the U-boat surfaced as the sailors were swimming to their lifeboats,” he said, “and they all were afraid it was coming up to machine-gun them. Instead, the captain lifted a small movie camera to document his kill, and Haskell remembered thinking, ‘I wonder if he’s shooting color or black and white?’”
After a stint making industrial films, Mr. Wexler became an assistant cameraman. He worked on documentaries and short subjects, the 1959 docudrama “The Savage Eye,” the classic sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” and other television shows. In the mid-1970s, he and a friend, the cinematographer Conrad Hall, founded Wexler-Hall, a commercial production company. Mr. Hall died in 2003.
Mr. Wexler’s most audacious artistic and political statement, and his proudest moment, was “Medium Cool” (1969), a fictional story set amid the real-life chaos of the 1968 Chicago convention and a harbinger of today’s hybrid docu-fiction. “I wrote it, I shot it, I had to fight my way through to get it seen, and I think it expressed what I wanted to do,” he said.
Much has been made of the film’s prescience about the violence that erupted on the city’s streets. Mr. Wexler did not see it that way.
“I wrote a script that was registered with the Writers Guild about a month earlier,” Mr. Wexler said in 2010. “I knew something was going to happen, but the script just said there was a demonstration and they arrested some hippies. I had no idea about the scope of it.
“I knew the antiwar people were planning a demonstration, and I knew that if the Democratic Party did not respond to the antiwar movement, there would be some kind of conflict. But it’s not like Abbie Hoffman called me up and said, ‘Look, we’re going to do this.’ No, I just figured something’s going to happen. It was just bigger than I’d thought.”
The story involved the political awakening of a news cameraman, played by Robert Forster, whose footage is used by the F.B.I. to find and arrest antiwar agitators. It wed the cinéma vérité style of documentary making that Mr. Wexler had helped develop to a story that cracked the wall between actors and audience.
“I was interested in a cameraman going out and seeing the world and being challenged by his interaction with the world, where he’d previously been an observer,” Mr. Wexler said.
In addition to his his wife, the actress Rita Taggart, and two sons, he is survived by a sister, Joyce Isaacs; a daughter, Kathy Wexler; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
In “Tell Them Who You Are,” his son Mark’s documentary, Mr. Wexler comes across as either a naturally irascible character or someone without a lot of time for blather. Asked about his approach to his art, and whether he had any kind of philosophical perspective on cinematography, he says that the way he shoots is “more deeply personal than anything I could comprehend and maybe than a psychiatrist could comprehend.” He adds:
“I don’t attack any kind of script or shooting with some philosophy that is discernible even to myself. It might just be art and love: When I got my Academy Award for ‘Virginia Woolf’ in the middle of the Vietnam War, I said, ‘I hope we can use our art for peace and love.’ I was telling someone that a few weeks ago, and they said, ‘What was the big deal?’ And I told him at that time those were revolutionary words. And I think they came from a deep place.”
Dennis McLellan and Jack Dolan
Haskell Wexler, a two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer — for “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory” — and the writer-director of the landmark 1969 film “Medium Cool,” died Sunday morning. He was 93.
Despite his success shooting big-budget films for major studios, Wexler, a lifelong liberal activist, devoted at least as much of his six-decade career to documentaries on war, politics and the plight of the disenfranchised.
“His real passion was much larger than just making movies,” said son Jeff Wexler a few hours after his father's death at a hospital in Santa Monica. “His real passion was for human beings and justice and peace.”
At age 89, Wexler, camera in hand, was an early and regular visitor to the Occupy L.A.encampment at City Hall in 2011. He said he was drawn to both the cause of economic justice and the political theater, feeling a kinship with the protesters despite what he acknowledged was the comfortable lifestyle of a successful Hollywood cinematographer.
“You can take that insulation and figure you're an old guy and you [already] did your thing,” Wexler said at the time. “Then something inside me gets reminded that my ‘thing' is what makes me alive — to be able to have a camera and an idea and an urge that gives me pleasure.”
One of the few cinematographers to have received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (in 1996), Wexler won his first Oscar for his black-and-white photography on “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” director Mike Nichols' 1966 debut starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
His acceptance speech was among the briefest in Hollywood history: “I hope we can use our art for peace and for love. Thanks.”
He won his second Oscar for “Bound for “Glory,” director Hal Ashby's 1976 movie starring David Carradine as legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Wexler also received Oscar nominations for best cinematography for the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (shared with Bill Butler), “Matewan” (1987) and “Blaze” (1989).
Among Wexler's other feature film credits as a cinematographer are “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Coming Home,” “Colors” and “The Babe.”
He also was visual consultant on George Lucas' 1973 classic “American Graffiti.” And he received an “additional photography” credit on Terrence Malick's 1978 film “Days of Heaven,” for which cinematographer Nestor Almendros won an Oscar.
Wexler made his feature directorial debut with “Medium Cool,” a low-budget 1969 film that he wrote and for which he served as a producer and as the director of photography.
Described by Wexler as “a wedding between features and cinema verite,” the drama about an emotionally detached TV news cameraman was partly shot in Chicago during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention.
At one point, as the camera inches closer to a tear-gas cloud and a wall of police officers, a voice off-camera famously can be heard warning, “Look out, Haskell — it's real!”
Considered “a seminal film of '60s independent cinema,” “Medium Cool” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2003.
Wexler also directed and wrote the 1985 feature film “Latino,” a war drama shot in Nicaragua that movie critic Michael Wilmington described as “an indictment of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua that pulls no philosophical punches and was made under conditions of real danger, near actual battle zones.”
Once named one of the 10 most influential cinematographers in movie history in a survey of International Cinematographers Guild members, Wexler became the first active cameraman to receive the American Society of Cinematographer's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
Describing his work in an interview that year with American Cinematographer magazine, Wexler said: “Movies are a voyeuristic experience. You have to make the audience feel like they are peeking through a keyhole. I think of myself as the audience. Then I use light, framing and motion to create a focal point.”
As a cinematographer, Wexler was known for being difficult — as several filmmakers attested to in “Tell Them Who You Are,” the highly personal 2004 documentary on Wexler made by his son, Mark, himself a target of his father's prickly nature.
Wexler was fired from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” more than halfway through shooting because, according to director Milos Forman, “He was sharing his frustrations with the actors.”
For his part, Wexler said in the documentary: “As a director of photography, I always have worked as if it's my film. I don't think there is a movie that I've been on that I wasn't sure I could direct it better. But certainly also, as a director of photography, I have to serve the movie in whatever way I can as a filmmaker.”
A child of wealth — his father made a fortune in electronics and continued to prosper during the Depression — Wexler was born Feb. 6, 1922, in Chicago.
Despite his privileged background, he showed his rebellious streak and political bent at 17 when he helped organize a workers' strike at his father's electronics factory.
After a year at UC Berkeley, Wexler dropped out in 1941 and joined the merchant marine. By the end of World War II, he had become a second officer and had survived 10 days in a lifeboat with 20 other merchant seamen after their supply ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean.
Back home after the war, Wexler was asked by his father what he wanted to do.
“I told him I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Wexler recalled in his interview with American Cinematographer.
Although he had previously shot only home movies with his father's 16-millimeter camera, Wexler received financial backing from him to open a small studio in Des Plaines, Ill.
The filmmaking enterprise was not a success, and in 1947 Wexler began working as a freelance assistant cameraman on industrial, educational and other films.
By the late 1950s, he had begun amassing feature film credits as a cinematographer.
Once described by Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein as “a fire-breathing old lefty with the crusty soul of a sensitive artist,” Wexler made a string of documentaries on subjects including the civil rights movement (“The Bus”), the Weather Underground(“Underground”) and the Vietnam War (“Introduction to the Enemy,” for which he traveled with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden to North Vietnam).
“We have a responsibility to show the public the kinds of truths that they don't see on the TV news or the Hollywood film,” he once said.
In the mid-1970s, Wexler and a friend, Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, launched a TV commercial company. Between shooting feature films, Wexler directed and shot commercials for products such as Miller Beer, STP and, most memorably, for Great Western Savings and Loan with John Wayne.
In 2001, he received an Emmy nomination for outstanding cinematography for a miniseries or movie for “61,” the Billy Crystal-directed HBO film about New York Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle's and Roger Maris' quest to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.
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.
“The main difference in documentaries is that it's closer to the skin,” Wexler said. “You're more in control, it's more yours and maybe two other people that are working with you. Documentaries, I really like.”