Haskell Wexler, world-famous cinematographer and liberal political activist, died 2 days after Christmas in his sleep at his Santa Monica home at the age of 93. It was a big loss to the world of cinema, and, on a personal level, I regret postponing the interview I planned (which he agreed to) that I never got around to conducting. He goes right up there with Christa McAuliff as (yet another) celebrity who I should have spoken with sooner.
On the even of the Monday, February 2 caucuses in Iowa, I think back to Wexler’s work on behalf of liberal causes and sneak in the prediction that Hillary will (probably) win Iowa but Bernie could take her in New Hampshire before mentioning some of Wexler’s accomplishments and quoting his son, Jeff, who works in the industry, as does his movie producer son Mark.
Haskell Wexler was still filming (the 2012 NATO demonstrations in Grant Park) at the age of 90, and that is when the picture accompanying this article was shot, in Grant Park.
This is me, in Grant Park, with Haskell Wexler. I was star-struck to realize Haskell was shooting film there (as was I) during the big NATO trade meeting (and demonstrations in Chicago in May, 2012.) He was 90 then and still working; we should all be so lucky. Haskell died in his sleep in Santa Monica this past December 27th, (2015). He was 93.
I ran all the way across the park to meet him and have this photo taken, bailing on a Vietnam veteran I was interviewing who was going to return his medals during the Occupy protests. Later, I had the photo framed, wrote a thank you note for the hours of entertainment that his movies provided to all of us, and gave it to him, in person, at a Chicago Film Festival I was covering. I asked him if I could interview him at that time, and he was very gracious and gave me his e-mail. I planned to do it, but I first needed to do more research on his many outstanding films, a few of which I had not seen (especially his documentaries, which are sometimes hard to obtain).
That didn’t happen and now he is dead. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
During his rise to prominence, Haskell met such future luminaries as a young George Lucas (he advised him to go to film school) and William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” “The French Connection”) when he was working as an usher in Chicago.
Chicago was a big part of Wexler’s life. He was a native son (born at 2340 Lincoln Park West to a father (Simon “Sy” Wexler) who worked for Allied Radio, a progenitor of Radio Shack. From an early age he began filming, working as an assistant to Mickey Pallas, who chronicled unions and civil rights groups—causes which Wexler would believe in and document all his life.
Probably his most famous chronicling of politics occurred in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention when actor Robert Forster (last seen on “Breaking Bad”) starred in his film “Medium Cool” and actual protesters and police appeared in the film. Haskell wrote, directed, shot and produced the film, getting his cousin, blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, to do the music. Wexler’s “cinema verite” hand-held camera style on the film, much like Costa Gravas’ “Z,” has been much studied in film schools since, and, as Glenn Erickson, writing for Turner Classic Movies said, “His footage looked so good that one would think the confrontation lines had been pre-lit for his camera.” Haskell himself described how he would coach the young female lead to go right up to the barricades and ask, nicely, if she could duck underneath them and go where the action was, with Wexler shooting her every step of the way. He captured the brutality of the thugs beating protesters against the Vietnam War in Grant Park, across the street from the Hilton on Michigan where the DNC was taking place at the time. When “Medium Cool” opened, film critic Roger Ebert called it, “The only feature film to really capture the life of Chicago’s neighborhoods.”
Haskell Wexler had a life-long love affair with Chicago, saying he always wanted to make his first film in Chicago because “Chicago is a real place and L.A. is a motel. I am a Chicagoan.”
The scenes Haskell Wexler gave us, including the black-and-white squabbling of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the lush grassy grace of a young Richard Gere in “Days of Heaven” stay in the memory. Faye Dunaway’s sexy chess game with Steve McQueen in the original “Thomas Crown Affair” (with its split-screen shots); “Coming Home” and Bruce Dern’s walk into the sea; “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Jack Nicholson (from which he was fired by Milos Forman); “In the Heat of the Night,” where he discovered that the lighting for black actor Sidney Poitier must be adjusted to suit African-American actor’s skin tones; “The Conversation” with Gene Hackman; “American Graffiti” with a young Harrison Ford and Ron Howard. The list goes on and on, and is enumerated below.
Haskell’s son, Jeff, who works in sound for movies, was Oscar-nominated himself for “The Last Samurai” and “Independence Day.” He relates, “Steve McQueen would come by the house and pick me up in one of his new Ferraris. Pop would take me to work. It was just terrific for me to visit the set. If they hadn’t put the camera on the dolly yet, he’d let me ride on the dolly. I was in heaven.”
Two things that few knew about Haskell Wexler, says his son Jeff, “Dad was color-blind. He kept it a secret for the longest time.” Also, when WWII began, Haskell joined the Merchant Marine, was torpedoed, spent two weeks in a lifeboat, and had to swim through burning oil to survive. That sort of sealed the deal as far as his anti-war stance.”
Wexler is survived by his son Jeff, his movie producer son Mark, a daughter, Kathy, and his third wife, actress Rita Taggart.
R.I.P., Haskell Wexler. You were truly a visionary and one of a kind.
Two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler was adjudged one of the ten most influential cinematographers in movie history, according to an International Cinematographers Guild survey of its membership. He won his Oscars in both black & white and color, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(1966) and Bound for Glory
(1976). He had served in the merchant marine with Arlo Guthrie. (He actually won the very last Oscar for b&w cinematography that was awarded.)
He also shot much of Days of Heaven
(1978), a gorgeous Richard Gere film directed by Terence Malick, for which credited director of photography Nestor Almendros — [who was losing his eye-sight], won a Best Cinematography Oscar that Wexler felt should have been jointly shared by both. “Days of Heaven” was not a commercial success but is now considered a seminal film of the seventies, especially because of its gorgeous cinematography. (Sam Shepherd was also in the film). In 1993, Wexler was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by the cinematographer’s guild, the American Society of Cinematographers.
He received five Oscar nominations for his cinematography, in total, plus one Emmy Award in a career that spanned six decades and lasted into his nineties, as I saw him shooting film in the park on May 22, 2012, during the NATO meting/protests. He was 90 when this picture was taken, and he was still working. Haskell suggested to George Lucas that he go to film school, and Lucas never forgot this helpful advice.
Weskell is one of only 6 cinematographers to have a star on Hollywood’s Starred Walk of Fame and once formed a business with famed director Conrad (Connie) Hall. (One of the other 6 cinematographers to have a star and whose last film was “Road to Perdition.”)
In addition to his masterful cinematography, Wexler directed the seminal late Sixties film Medium Cool
(1969) and has directed and/or shot many documentaries that display his progressive political views. He was the subject of a 2004 documentary shot by his son Mark Wexler
, Tell Them Who You Are
- Stakeout on Dope Street, 1958 (credited as Mark Jeffrey due to problems with his Guild membership
- The Savage Eye, 1960
- Hoodlum Priest, 1961
- Angel Baby, 1961
- Face in the Rain, 1963
- America, America, 1963
- The Best Man, 1964
- The Loved One, 1965 (also producer)
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966
- In the Heat of the Night, 1967
- The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968
- Medium Cool, 1969 (also director and screenwriter)
- American Graffiti, 1973 (as “Visual Consultant”)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975 (replaced by Bill Butler)
- Bound for Glory, 1976
- Coming Home, 1978
- Days of Heaven, 1978
- Second-Hand Hearts, 1981
- Lookin’ to Get Out, 1982
- The Man Who Loved Women, 1983
- Matewan, 1987
- Colors, 1988
- Three Fugitives, 1989
- Blaze, 1989
- Other People’s Money, 1991
- The Babe, 1992
- The Secret of Roan Inish, 1994
- Canadian Bacon, 1995
- Mulholland Falls, 1996
- The Rich Man’s Wife, 1996
- Limbo, 1999
- 61*, 2001
- Silver City, 2004
- The Writer with No Hands, 2014 (appearance as self)