In Praise Of Haskell Wexler

If a common thread exists in American cinema, at some point two names rises to the forefront, the grandmother of editors and of the New American cinema, Verna Fields and the cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Haskell passed on from this earth today. An innovator, a mentor and a strong voice for social justice Wexler has left behind a legacy which will not be equaled.

The director of photographer’s son Jeff Wexler confirmed his father’s death, writing on his official website, “It is with great sadness that I have to report that my father, Haskell Wexler, has died. Pop died peacefully in his sleep, Sunday, December 27th, 2015. Accepting the Academy Award in 1967, Pop said: ‘I hope we can use our art for peace and for love.’ An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on.”

Wexler began his career behind the camera helming documentaries before breaking into feature films as a cinematographer. In 1969, he served as writer, director and director of photography on Medium Cool, a ground breaking, Cinéma-vérité styled film set around the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The film featured music by Frank Zappa, Love and a score by Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who was Wexler’s cousin. In 2003, the Library of Congress added Medium Cool to its national film registry.

Wexler’s cinematography work also featured 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair, 1973’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1978’s Days of Heaven (a split credit with Néstor Almendros) and 1988’s Colors. Wexler served as cinematographer on the all-star No Nukes concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden in September 1979; Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the show as captured by Wexler’s camera resulted in a pair of music videos, “Thunder Road” and “The River,” the latter of which debuted at the No Nukes concerts.

Over his career, Wexler was nominated for five Oscars in the cinematography category and won a pair, first for 1967’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the last ever recipient of the Best Cinematography, Black-and-White category) and then 1977’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory. Wexler also received a nomination for his work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1996, Wexler was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a first for a cinematographer.

It can be argued that Haskell Wexler pushed George Lucas to go the University of Southern California. Wexler stepped in again when the Lucas helmed American Graffiti got into production problems. Wexler would work all day shooting commercials, then would fly to the Bay Area at night to supervise the visual look of this ground breaking American film.

There are few cinematographers who can count the likes of George Lucas, Terrence Malick, Milos Forman, Mike Nichols, and Elia Kazan among the directors they’ve worked with. But then again, there were few like Haskell Wexler, and he will be indeed be missed.