Remembering Haskell Wexler: The celebrated filmmaker used his art for peace and love

By on December 29, 2015

We learned yesterday that the celebrated cameraman, cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler died on Sunday, December 27, 2015, age 93. The sad news was passed along by his son Jeff, posting on his father’s website, who added that his father’s “real passion was much larger than just making movies…His real passion was for human beings and justice and peace… An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on.”

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During his long career, Wexler made his mark as a director — his best-known film as a director is the 1969 film Medium Cool, which notably mixed documentary and dramatic elements, telling the story of a fictional television photographer (Robert Forster) who covers the violence between Chicago police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention — but he’s also known for the many features, shorts and documentaries he worked on behind-the-scenes — more than eighty of them — as a cinematographer, or Director of Photography, although Wexler personally preferred the term “cameraman.”

Wexler — who was once described by L.A. Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein as “a fire-breathing old lefty with the crusty soul of a sensitive artist” — was named one of the 10 most influential cinematographers in movie history in a survey of International Cinematographers Guild members. Wexler was also the first active cameraman to receive the American Society of Cinematographer’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

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Wexler was nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Cinematography five times, winning two times, for his work on Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 (the last black and white film to win the award) and the 1976 Bound for Glory, directed by Hal Ashby. The others were the 1975 Academy Award winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (he shared the nomination with Bill Butler), John Sayles’s Matewan (1987) and Ron Shelton’s Blaze (1989).

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Wexler’s other notable feature film credits as a cinematographer include The Thomas Crown Affair, In the Heat of the Night, Coming Home, Colors and The Babe, and he also replaced Nestor Almendros on Terence Malick‘s Days of Heaven. The awards, or rather the lack of them, don’t really give you the idea of how respected and loved he was, on-set and off, as the tributes pouring in over the last two days have attested.

But, Wexler could also be difficult to work with, apparently, as several of his former colleagues would report in Tell Them Who You Are, the 2004 documentary about Wexler made by his son, Mark, which reveals how 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.” Wexler also clashed with Francis Ford Coppola, who fired him during the filming of The Conversation.

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.”

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Haskell Wexler was born on February 6, 1922, in Chicago. His father had made his fortune in electronics, and they continued to prosper during the Depression, when many were struggling to make end’s meet. Wexler showed an early interest in politics, and was still in grade school when he went to work for a photographer involved in the trade-union movement. At age 12, he recorded his family’s vacation in Mussolini’s Italy with his family’s home-movie camera, and by 17, he was helping to organize a workers’ strike at his father’s electronics factory. One of his childhood friends was future publisher Barney Rosset, who helped bring down censorship laws by publishing unexpurgated editions of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

Wexler ventured west for college, enrolling in the University of California at Berkeley, but he dropped out after eighteen months in 1941 in order to enlist in the Merchant Marines. At the time, the United States was about to enter World War II. He became a second officer, but then his supply ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the tip of South Africa, in the Indian Ocean, which forced Wexler into a lifeboat with twenty other merchant seamen, where they survived ten days in a lifeboat for two weeks. Wexler’s wife would later say that this life-changing event attributed Wexler’s “lifelong fight for justice and world peace.”

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After the war, and serving five years as a merchant sailor, Wexler returned home to Chicago, and was asked by his father what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, telling him he wanted to become a filmmaker. Although he had previously only filmed home movies with his father’s 16-millimeter camera, Wexler’s father helped financially to back his son in setting up a small photography studio in Des Plaines, Illinois, where he made films for the United Electrical Workers Union with his a 16mm Maurer camera.

He shot his first professional industrial film in the cotton mill town of Opelika, Alabama, with 35mm Arriflex, the first reflex camera of that time. By 1947, he was also working as a freelance assistant cameraman on industrial, educational and other films. Wexler’s work on mostly low-budget short films and documentaries, including the Academy Award-nominated Living City (1955), paved the way for his filmmaking style, which was to use the camera to document what was seen through the lens.

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He moved to Hollywood in the late fifties, where he mostly worked as an assistant on a number of Hollywood films, mostly westerns. Wexler made his feature debut in 1963 on Elia Kazan’s immigrant drama America, America, shot with an Italian crew in Greece. The film opened many doors and kept him busy as a sought-after cameraman. He did car commercials for a company he had worked with in Chicago who had purchased the Charlie Chaplin Studios in Hollywood, and shot non-union pictures, low-budget films and pictures for director Roger Corman, including Stakeout on Dope Street (for that one he used the name Mark Jeffrey, which are the names of his two sons).

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In 1965, he worked on the adaption of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, directed by Tony Richardson, but it was his next film, Mike Nichols’s filmic adaptation of Edward Albee’s celebrated play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which earned him his first Oscar. On that film, Wexler created all kinds of inventive ways to make the stage play visually stimulating, including using hand-held cameras to capture the tension of the tirades between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and he even tied himself to actress Sandy Dennis, and used a handheld camera while the crew spun him around as the actress said her line “I dance like the wind.”

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His acceptance speech at the Oscars was among the briefest in Hollywood history: “I hope we can use our art for peace and for love. Thanks.”

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Wexler was not nominated for his work on 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison, but he earned accolades from his peers for the way he used lighting to bring out the moods of the characters, including Sidney Poitier as a detective from the north squaring off against Rod Steiger’s bigoted small-town Mississippi sheriff. Wexler put silks over the tops of sets and aimed umbrella lights directly at the actors, capturing expressions on Poitier’s black face that might have gone unseen had a different cameraman been responsible for getting the shot.

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He would work with Jewison again in 1968, on the Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway film The Thomas Crown Affair, and that same year he embarked on his feature film directorial debut, Medium Cool, which starred Robert Forster as a TV news reporter at the actual 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Wexler mixed the scripted feature footage with the actual riots that broke out.

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Inspired by the techniques he’d seen in Italian neo-realist films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicyle Thief and Shoeshine, Wexler’s film — which he later described as “a wedding between features and Cinema Verité” — is still remarkable for its own unique look, and for the way Wexler’s French CM-3 camera plunges the viewer right into the madness of a moment in our fairly recent political history. At one point, as Wexler’s 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!”

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In the concise Criterion Collection essay about the Cinema Verité style of filmmaking, borrowing from the look of documentary films, Thomas Beard writes:

A crucial entry in this peculiar canon is Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), a quasi-scripted narrative played out against the backdrop of the actual 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the tumult surrounding that event. The film revolves around John (Robert Forster), a television news cameraman who has become disenchanted with his profession, and Eileen (Verna Bloom), a young war widow from West Virginia who has just moved to the city with her son. Both, to their surprise, become embroiled in the political swirl of the moment—he is furious to discover that the film he shoots for work is regularly handed over to the police and FBI for inspection, and she finds herself suddenly in the midst of a very real protest that’s met with a very violent response from the Chicago police. Medium Cool is a film remarkable for its insistence that no one exists outside of politics, whether one experiences it as a backdrop to daily life (a wrinkled Bobby Kennedy poster in a cramped apartment) or as a nightstick to the gut.

Medium Cool was later selected for preservation in the National Film Registry but for decades has been considered a seminal film of ’60s independent cinema. It came with a price, however, as Haskell Wexler admitted that he was under surveillance for the entire seven weeks he was in Chicago, by the police, the Army and the Secret Service.

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Wexler — a lifelong liberal activist — would continue to explore his interests in making documentaries about war, politics and the plight of the disenfranchised, as well as working as a cameraman-for-hire, such as the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers film. He interviewed Mai Lai Veterans, President Salvador Allende (who became Chile’s first socialist president in 1970) and he filmed The Trail of the Catonsville Nine in 1972.

In 1973, he was hired as a visual consultant to work on George Lucas’s American Graffiti, where he famously hosed down the streets to achieve a moody, reflective style that helped to elevate that film’s visual look for Lucas, then an art-house style director who was making his first comedic coming-of-age feature.

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In the mid-1970s, Wexler and a friend, Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, launched a TV commercial company, and Wexler — in between shooting feature films — directed and shot commercials for products such as Miller Beer, STP and, memorably, for Great Western Savings and Loan with actor John Wayne.

One of those feature films was Milos Forman’s 1975 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Forman dismissed Wexler from the film and finished shooting with Bill Butler (Wexler would later share the nomination for his Best Cinematography with Butler, although they didn’t win). He did win, however, for the 1976 film Bound For Glory, directed by the great Hal Ashby. The project was close to Wexler’s heart, being a bio-pic on the life of Woody Guthrie, a folk singer and working-man’s hero (Guthrie was played by David Carradine), and Wexler used the first handheld blimp cameras to capture the movements of the actors.

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1976 was also the year Wexler lensed the political documentary Underground — co-directed with Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson — which explored the activities of the radical, intensely reclusive Weather Underground. Other political documentaries he made over his career include The Bus (about the civil rights movement, and 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.

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Wexler worked again with Hal Ashby on the critically-acclaimed Coming Home, in 1978, and that same year he replaced cinematographer Nestor Almendros on Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven, when the production ran so late that both Almendros and camera operator John Bailey had to leave due to a prior commitment on François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977).

Almendros approached Wexler to complete the film; they worked together for a week so that Wexler could get familiar with the film’s visual style. Wexler was careful to match Almendros’ work, but he did make some exceptions. “I did some hand held shots on a Panaflex”, Wexler once said about the experience, “[for] the opening of the film in the steel mill. I used some diffusion. Nestor didn’t use any diffusion. I felt very guilty using the diffusion and having (sic) the feeling of violating a fellow cameraman.”

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Although half the finished picture was footage shot by Wexler, he received only credit for “additional photography,” much to his chagrin, because the credit denied him any chance of being awarding by the Academy for his work on Days of Heaven.

He lensed the 1980 No Nukes documentary, and a handful of feature films in the early 80s, of which Latino deserves particular note because the war drama was shot in Nicaragua. Movie critic Michael Wilmington later described the film 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.”

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Wexler also won acclaim for his work on John Sayles’s 1987 film Matewan, which dramatized a real-life 1920 coal miners’s strike in West Virginia. He closed out the 80s working with Dennis Hopper on the L.A. gang movie Colors, and Ron Shelton’s Blaze, which earned him yet another nomination for Best Cinematography from his peers. For Colors, Wexler experimented by using film stock that he would have used on a 16mm documentary, and the camera movement was more similar to those used in documentary filmmaking too,, thus elevating the visual look of Hopper’s film.

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Other films he shot over the next decade would include another feature for Jewison (Other People’s Money, 1990), Arthur Hiller’s The Babe (1992), Michael Moore’s comedic feature Canadian Bacon (1994) and a couple more for Sayles (The Secret of Roan Inish, 1994; Limbo, 1999). In 1996, he became one of the few cinematographers to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 2011, Wexler — then 89 years old — could be seen, camera in hand, at 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.

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Occasional Night Flight contributor Tom Brown has written up something about Haskell Wexler that we’d also like to share:

“I’ve just heard that Haskell Wexler died, and I thought I would share my story of meeting him.

In July of 2009 I attended Haskell Wexler night at the Aero theatre in Santa Monica with the hope of meeting him face to face, as he had been incredibly gracious to endorse my then unpublished book, Summer Of Love, My Ass.

Our prior communication was relegated to email, as I had never met him. The films being shown this night were Medium Cool (1969), written and directed by Haskell and Coming Home (1978), directed by the great Hal Ashby, and shot by the two time Academy Award winning cinematographer, who won for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf (1966), directed by Mike Nichols and Bound For Glory (1976), also directed by Ashby.

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Wexler’s other credits include The Loved One, Uncle Meat, In The Heat Of The Night, American Graffiti, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Day’s Of Heaven, Matewan, Colors, Blaze, Canadian Bacon, Mulholland Falls, Silver City and many more.

Here was a man, who had an incredible resume and had worked with numerous major stars and directors, and here I was, an absolute nobody, and the man took the time to endorse my book. Damn. It may not have hurt that I was able to dangle the legendary Pete Seeger’s name in front of him as I had already obtained his endorsement, but for whatever the reason, I was truly grateful and wanted to tell him to his face.

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My partner in crime for this night was my good friend, the great John Livzey, who is a major film freak himself, who has his own stellar credentials as a photographer and as usual had his trusty camera with him to record the occasion for posterity.

Arriving a bit early we noted that Haskell was hanging out in front of the theatre surrounded by fans and engaged in conversation. I decided that I would station myself in front of the entrance and pounce on him when he entered the venue. It didn’t take long and as soon as he rounded the corner I stepped forward, stuck out my hand and introduced myself, hoping that he would remember who I was, as it had been several months since I had obtained the endorsement.

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I was able to get out “Mr. Wexler, my name is Tom Brown, and”, before he broke into a broad smile, immediately shook my hand and told me, “You’re that great writer who sent me that fantastic book that I endorsed.”

I’m not sure what I might have been expecting, but it wasn’t this. He then began to sing my praises for the next 5 minutes, and even pleaded with the surrounding crowd who was watching to keep an eye out for the book and to buy it. It was one of those unbelievable, once in a lifetime moments. I actually felt like an almost important person for a moment. Bursting with pride you might say.

He went on and on telling me that I had a great voice and was a terrific writer, before it was time to enter the theatre to view the presentation. I turned to see John Livzey standing to the side taking pictures, and he told me “I looked stunned.” Because I was.

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All of those hours I had spent in the teenage room by myself, writing the book with very little feedback could be ponderous at times, but the few minutes I had spent with Haskell made it all worthwhile. I finally felt worthy and it was a magnificent boost to my confidence.

Now all I had to do was get one more endorsement from a major celebrity (which ultimately turned out to be Howard Zinn), and then perpetrate a full-on assault on the agents and publishers to get the goddamn thing in print, but that’s another story, and an incredibly depressing one it is.

It was another 3 ½ years before I found a publisher, but unfortunately there was no money up front, nor was there an imaginary fund to promote the goddamn thing. And here I sit still trying to sell it.

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If one is interested in politics or the state of things in 1968 Medium Cool is a must see. In addition there is a documentary titled Tell Them Who You Are about Haskell’s life and career, directed by his son, Mark, which should also be mandatory viewing.

Amazingly Haskell remained supportive and actually called me several times in the next few months to see if I had made any headway, and continued to tell me how worthy the book was.

Thank you Haskell. You are a man of the highest integrity, and I’ll never forget how kind you’ve been with me.

All hail the great Haskell Wexler!”

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“H.T. Brown has written a dramatic personal book. A sixties bumper sticker says Question Authority. Summer of Love does this with searing honesty and ironic humor. No question Summer of Love will make an exciting, dramatic movie. Your life is a history lesson which can give younger people understanding of today’s erasure of the ‘Vietnam syndrome.'” ~ Haskell Wexler, Writer, producer, director, activist and two time Academy Award winning cinematographer

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.