Haskell Wexler, the influential cinematographer who won Oscars for his work on 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and 1976’s “Bound for Glory,” died Sunday, his son said. He was 93.
He died “peacefully in his sleep,” Jeff Wexler, an award-winning audio engineer, wrote on his website, jwsoundgroup.net.
“It is with great sadness that I have to report that my father, Haskell Wexler, has died,” Jeff Wexler wrote in a blog entry Sunday afternoon. “An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on.”
Haskell Wexler was one of the most creative and significant cinematographers in movie history. The cinematographer is primarily responsible for the lighting and framing of films, and Wexler — with his dramatic black-and-white compositions, his painterly use of color and his expert eye for dramatic angles — was one of the best.
“There are images in (director) Hal Ashby’s ‘Bound For Glory’ so striking or so beautiful I doubt I’ll ever forget them,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review.
“Glory,” which won Wexler his second Oscar, was also the first film to feature a long Steadicam tracking shot — done by its inventor, Garrett Brown — according to TCM.com.
Wexler was born in Chicago, a city he returned to for 1969’s “Medium Cool,” which contrasted the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention with gritty neighborhood street scenes. Though he could have gone into finance — his father was an electronics maker, and a brother was a major Chicago real estate developer — movies were his love.
His credits are a list of some of the best films of the ’60s and ’70s. Besides “Virginia Woolf,” Wexler worked on 1967’s best picture “In the Heat of the Night,” 1968’s sleek “The Thomas Crown Affair,” 1975’s best picture “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the 1978 Vietnam film “Coming Home.”
His work served and complemented the direction and performances.
Wexler’s camera “moves like a wily but congenial Inquisitor, displaying, revealing, highlighting,” The Hollywood Reporter said in its review of “Virginia Woolf.”
Wexler probably could have gone comfortably from major studio film to major studio film, but he also was dedicated to progressive politics and occasionally made documentaries, such as 1971’s “Interviews with My Lai Veterans” and 2000’s “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds.”
In 2011, when he was 89, he filmed Los Angeles’ Occupy activists for “Occupy Los Angeles.”
“You can … figure you’re an old guy and you (already) did your thing,” Wexler told The Los Angeles Times. “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.”
Son Mark Wexler later made a documentary about his father, 2004’s “Just Tell Them Who You Are.”
Haskell Wexler, a World War II veteran credited legendary colleague James Wong Howe (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Hud”) with giving him confidence early in his career.
While operating a camera for 1955’s “Picnic,” Wexler stood on the strut of a helicopter to get an aerial shot, “hang(ing) on for dear life while trying to steer the Cinemascope camera,” he told Peter Ettedgui in the book “Cinematography.” “I didn’t know what the hell the shot was going to look like.”
But the demanding Howe approved.
“It was the best day of my life,” Wexler said. “Ever since then, whenever I’ve done a shot I’m happy with, I hear his Chinese-accented voice in my head.”
Still, his view was always wider than the viewfinder. He talked as much about the human side of his job as he did the technical aspects. As Jeff Wexler told the L.A. Times, “His real passion was for human beings and justice and peace.”
Haskell Wexler echoed that view in “Cinematography.”
“I’d say to anyone trying to break into the business: Don’t just be interested in movies,” he said. “Be interested in life. Be a person. Be in touch.”