Two Legends Leave the Stage: a Personal Farewell to Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond

In the past month, the movie industry and fans around the world lost two extraordinary talents. Cinematographers Haskell Wexler, ASC was 93 years old when he died on December 27, 2015 and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC was 85 years old when he died on New Year’s Day, 2016.

I’d known these men for close to 40 years and both of them mentored, inspired and encouraged me to focus on writing about the art of cinematography.

Vilmos earned 73 narrative film and three documentary credits during his storied career. He received an Academy Award for Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 and other nominations for The Deer Hunter in 1978, The River in 1984 and The Black Dahlia in 2006. Vilmos also received an Emmy award for the miniseries Stalin in 1992 and a nomination for The Mists of Avalon in 2001. The American Society of Cinematographers presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.

Haskell earned 36 narrative film and 23 documentary credits. He received Academy Awards for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1967 and Bound for Glory in 1976. There were other nominations for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Matewan in 1987 and Blaze in 1989. Haskell also shot documentaries because he felt that he had a moral obligation to inform and educate the public about important issues. His nonfiction credits include two films produced in IMAX format. Hail Columbia is the story of the maiden voyage of the NASA space shuttle. At The Max takes audiences on a journey with The Rolling Stones who are performing at theaters around Europe.

Haskell received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1993 and The International Documentary Association in 2006. He is the only cinematographer to receive that recognition both ASC and IDA. A star on a Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame was dedicated to Haskell in February 1996.

Haskell and Vilmos brought dramatically different backgrounds to their art form. Haskell was born in Chicago in 1926. He spent his childhood in that city. His first experience with a motion picture camera occurred during his teenage years when he was shooting 8 mm home movies. Haskell volunteered to serve as a seaman in the Merchant Marines during the Second World War. He spent a month living in a native village on the coast of Africa after the ship he served on was torpedoed and sank.

After the war, Haskell organized a company in Chicago which produced films for companies that used them for training employees and informing the public. He once told about the important lessons that experience taught him.

“I learned how people lived while working in factories, offices and other places in the real world,” he said. “I also learned how nuances in light, shadows, composition and camera angle influenced how an audiences perceives a story.”

Haskell began his narrative film career while working as an assistant cameraman in Chicago in 1947. In 1955, he was a second unit cameraman on Picnic on a crew led by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, ASC.

“That was my graduate school,” he reminisced several years ago.

Haskell earned his first cinematography credit for a narrative film in 1958. Stakeout on Dope Street was an ultra-low budget, independent film produced in Chicago.

The American Society of Cinematographers presented Haskell with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 while his career was still evolving.

After he received that recognition I asked Haskell to describe his approach to creating compelling narrative stories on motion picture film.

“Movies are a voyeuristic experience,” he replied. “You have to make the audience feel like they are peeking through a keyhole. I think of myself as the audience. We can’t separate the content of the movies that we help to create from the art of recording images on film. That’s how history will judge us.”

The International Documentary Association presented Haskell with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. He is the only cinematographer recognized with lifetime awards by both ASC and IDA.

The story of Vilmos’ life could inspire a script for a feel-good Hollywood movie where a seemingly impossible dream comes true. He was born in Szeged, Hungary in 1931. Vilmos spent the early years of his life in Szeged where his mother managed a bar and his father was a soccer coach. His family was considered bourgeois by people in the communist government that took control of the nation in 1945.

Vilmos was 17 years old when he read The Art of Light. The book written by Eugene Dulovits sparked his interest in still photography. He saved enough money to buy a camera and taught himself how to take pictures.

Vilmos shared his passion for photography by teaching people working in the factory how to take pictures. That impressed communist officials who sent him to The Academy for Theater and Art in Budapest to learn how to film movies. Their plan was for him to teach people who worked in the factory how to make home movies.

“The faculty taught us that a movie is only art if it has something important to say,” Vilmos said. “It should be more than entertainment. It should have social value.”

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC was also a student at the school. He and Vilmos became lifelong friends. There was an uprising against the communist government on the streets of Budapest in 1956. Vilmos and Laszlo borrowed a motion picture camera from the school and documented the brutal suppression of the uprising by the Russian army. They packed the film in laundry bags which they carried across the border into Austria.

Describing that as a dangerous endeavor would be a major understatement.

Many years later, I asked Vilmos what inspired he and Laszlo to risk their lives. He said they had a moral obligation to show people in other countries what was happening. They were hoping other countries would intervene. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Vilmos and Laszlo migrated to the United States as political refugees in January 1957. Vilmos worked at a still film lab in Chicago for about a year before moving to Los Angeles. He worked at a motion picture laboratory while learning to speak English.

Vilmos made a living by shooting commercials, educational films and an array of low budget independent features during the 1960s. He earned the attention of film critics when McCabe and Mrs. Miller, directed by Robert Altman, and The Hired Hand, directed by Peter Fonda, were hits at the box office in 1971. Vilmos then shot Deliverance which attracted large crowds and earned Oscar nominations as best picture and best director for John Boorman in 1972.

I asked Vilmos to describe his feelings about collaborating with directors.

“The director is like the conductor of a symphony orchestra,” he replied. “The rest of us follow his lead. 95 percent of my job is to using lighting which defines moods and allows audiences to follow stories with dialogue.”

It was common practice for Vilmos to tell me during interviews that I should be writing about a wonderful film Laszlo had just shot. When I interviewed Laszlo, he told me I should be writing about a wonderful film Vilmos just shot. Laszlo passed away in 2007.

Haskell was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the CamerImage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Torun, Hungary in 1996.

I have vivid memories of traveling to Torun with Vilmos when received that recognition the following year. He was a national hero. It seemed like everyone in the country knew what he had achieved. People kept stopping us on the street to say hello and shake his hand. One of them told Vilmos that the success he and Laszlo achieved in America inspired people in Hungary to want a democratic government. He was both a national hero and an inspiration to the next generation of filmmakers in his native land.

Haskell and Vilmos both left people whose lives they touched with a trove of personal memories in addition to the wonderful movies they created.

Both men were my friends. I found 78 articles that I wrote about Vilmos and his endeavors going back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. I found 39 magazine articles I wrote about Haskell, dating back to Medium Cool in 1969. More than a few of those articles dealt with their feelings about issues which defined the futures of narrative and documentary filmmaking. I also moderated discussions with both of them at film festivals and other events in Europe as well as the United States. Haskell and Vilmos both dedicated parts of their precious time to working on documentaries and low budget films they believed in. They both told me about and introduced me to other cinematographers they admired and urged me to write articles about them and their endeavors. Vilmos and Haskell were unique human beings who made deep impressions on me and on the world. They will be sorely missed. MM

Bob Fisher is the co-author of The Art of Cinematography and was made an honorary member of the American Society of Cinematographers in 20013. He mainly writes about cinematographers who worked in diverse industries, ranging from television news to commercials, documentaries and narrative films. Photographs courtesy of Douglas Kirkland.

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