Oscars to honor a master of illumination

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The long life's work of Jack Cardiff, widely regarded as one of the world's great cinematographers, are perfectly encapsulate in the simple sentences, "You have to look hard at the things you love. I looked hard at paintings, and I learned about light."

At 86, with more than 100 films to his credit, the English-born Cardiff will receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 25 -- the first honorary Oscar ever given primarily for achievements in cinematography. (In 1952, George A. Mitchell received an honorary Oscar for the design and development of the camera that bears his name, although the citation also mentions his works as a cinematographer.) He will be able to place it next to his Oscar for best cinematography for the 1947 film "Black Narcissus."

He is hardly a household name, but within the film industry, Cardiff is revered as the first lighting cameraman to explore color in films to its fullest potential. Martin Scorsese, who contributed the foreword to Cardiff's autobiography, "Magic Hour," called him "a pioneer of color," adding, "He worked in one capacity or another on many of the greatest pictures ever made, films that have captivated me from childhood to middle age."

And Scorsese goes on to cite "The Four Feathers" (1939), and four films Cardiff made with director Michael Powell and producer-screenwriter Emeric Pressburger: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), "A Matter of Life and Death," also known as "Stairway to Heaven" (1946), "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" (1948).

Cardiff is also regarded as an elder statesman of genius by his fellow cinematographers. A statement by the British Society of Cinematographers noted: "We are all delighted that the American academy have chosen to honor a cinematographer . . . and more so that it is our own British 'Master of Light' Jack Cardiff. It is a delight to us all, as the award reflects on the quality of British cinematography, which is renowned worldwide. Jack has been in the forefront of innovation and excellence in cinematography for over 50 years."

And Bill Taylor, visual effects governor of the American academy, said: "Jack Cardiff, one of the few remaining pioneers of color photography, has given us some of the most enduring images in film. And he's not only a pioneer. He is a living example of the very highest standards of his art -- the same high standards the academy is chartered to recognize."

But Cardiff reacted to the honorary Oscar with typical modesty. "It's unbelievable," he said. "I think what happened is that the [academy] committee met, and they decided: Why not give an Oscar to a technician this year, rather than a star, a director or producer?"

His admirers would balk at his use of the humdrum word "technician." But Cardiff, who has also directed 15 films, knows the boundaries of a cinematographer's duties.

"I've believed for a long time that photography shouldn't stick out too much, but enhance all the subtlety a director puts into it," he said. "Because it is the director's film. The director has the responsibility for everything on the picture, and the cameraman's job is to serve him."

He mused on this at his home in this leafy small town southeast of London, where he lives with his third wife, Nicki; they have been together 30 years. A genial, welcoming man, Cardiff is more than happy to launch into anecdotes about his career, which astonishingly began in 1918, when he was a 4-year-old actor. (His parents were traveling entertainers in music halls, and Jack grew up without a sense of a permanent home.) He began work behind a camera at age 14.

In his time, he worked with legends. As cinematographer on "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957), he looked on helplessly as actor-director Laurence Olivier and lead actress Marilyn Monroe waged war on set. He traveled up the Congo with John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn for "The African Queen" (1951), a film marked by appalling conditions and various nautical disasters. Cardiff enjoyed a chaste romance with Sophia Loren on the set of "Legend of the Lost" (1957), and tried in vain to rein in the wayward Errol Flynn, who was producing his first film, the ill-fated and never completed "William Tell" in 1953.

Cardiff clearly had the charm, charisma and talent to be liked and trusted by leading actors and world-class directors (he also worked with Alfred Hitchcock and King Vidor). But his reputation rests on the technical advances he achieved as a cinematographer, which coincided with the advent of Technicolor.

He was a camera operator on the first Technicolor film made in Britain -- "Wings of the Morning" (1937), starring Henry Fonda, and worked for Technicolor for 10 years while also working in film. His first big break came when Michael Powell asked him to be cinematographer on "A Matter of Life and Death."

"There were huge wonderful sets to light," Cardiff recalled. "And there was a stairway to heaven in the film, which was a huge, engine-driven escalator with 100 steps. It took three months to build. I assumed the scenes in the film that took place in heaven would be in color. "Michael said no, that's what people will be expecting. Heaven will be in black and white."

Working with Powell and Pressburger was, he says, "a great combination. Micky was the crazy one. He always used to say: 'Let's do it a different way!' Emeric Pressburger would say: 'OK Michael, but remember, there's this next sequence to do.' He was a steadying influence. He didn't destroy any ideas, but he stabilized everything."

Cardiff joined the spirit of experimentation: "Once Michael had a script with the phrase 'fade in,' and was frustrated because he couldn't think of an original way to do it. I told him to stand behind the camera as I breathed on the lens, fogging it up. When it cleared away, he had his 'fade in.' He loved that."

"The Red Shoes," the ballet-themed Powell-Pressburger film now deemed a classic, had a shaky start, Cardiff recalls: "It was made for the Rank Organisation in Britain, and when it was shown to them at a screening, they walked out without a word. They thought it had no value and wouldn't even give it a premiere." But the film was partially saved in America, where it was shown in the tiny 500-seat Bijou Theater in New York, receiving such strong word-of-mouth that audiences flocked to it for two years.

With Technicolor, Cardiff adjusted to lighting what was essentially a new medium: "You had to put light everywhere. Technicolor didn't want deep shadows in case they turned out rainbow-colored, so for safety they said everything must be lit. There was no argument about it. The cameramen were always scared of areas where a person would be walking through an area of shadow. They felt obligated to light those areas, or the director would say: 'It's gone dark! I must see him!' Whereas today it's a perfect combination, and an actor goes through a shadow, as you do in real life."

When he joined Technicolor as a cinematographer, Cardiff was only 22, but he already had strong ideas about lighting, formulated by looking at paintings by old masters in London museums and galleries.

"When I was very young and enthusiastic, I started to collect photographs, cheap reproductions of paintings, including a lot of Rembrandts," he recalled. He pasted these photos into a notebook and opposite them placed portraits of Hollywood stars. "What struck me was that there was the exact same lighting on their faces."

Cardiff came to realize there were parallels between the light of early films and early, pre-Renaissance fresco painting: "The light was flat, with hardly any three-dimensional effects of light and shade. In the same way, in early films, the film emulsion was so insensitive that you needed a lot of bright, overhead light. And it tended to be frontal and flat. Just as the Renaissance painters managed to put light and shade in their paintings, so a range of faster film stock meant you could introduce more shade."

This love for painting has remained. He exhibited some 30 Impressionist-style canvases at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999 and works part of most days in a studio at his home. "I have a certain knowledge about light, but I'm trying to develop a style," he said with his usual lack of fanfare. He is making plans for another exhibition.

These days he sees few films on the big screen, but several on video. He admired the cinematography of recent British movies "Elizabeth" and "Billy Elliot," and thinks the craft has improved immeasurably. But he has one concern -- that his profession is being downgraded.

"Years ago, when I was working with Powell and Pressburger, or Hitchcock, Huston, King Vidor, we'd prepare a scene and they'd say: 'Jack, get an effect of poverty here, or joy or happiness here. I don't know how you'll do it, but that's what I want.'

"Directors today have been to film schools. They've taken on a whole lot of knowledge about labs, lighting and film stock. It's never happened to me, but they'll say: 'I want the new Fuji, or the new Kodak, try to get three-quarters back light on this scene.' They'll tell a cameraman the sort of lighting they want, which is pretty horrifying in a way."

He enjoyed directing, though it never brought him the same accolades as his talent for cinematography. He rates "Sons and Lovers" (1960), an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel, as his favorite of the films he directed. "It was the result," he said, "of victory over incredible opposition."

He shot the film in mining country in the north of England, with a largely British cast. But Fox, the studio bankrolling the film, wanted an American star in the lead, so Cardiff agreed to hire Dean Stockwell as the young hero trying to shape a new destiny, away from the harsh realities of his mining community.

"And Dean did very well," he said. But Cardiff dug in his heels when Fox asked him to tone down the dialogue's sexual candor; he felt that to do so would betray the spirit of the story. And finally he prevailed.

Cardiff had one disappointment as a director. In the early '60s, he wanted to film James Joyce's "Ulysses," with Peter Sellers playing its Dublin hero Leopold Bloom. Fox was ready to finance the film, but Sellers requested a month's delay. "He was having wife trouble," Cardiff recalled. When the month was up, a new regime had taken over at Fox, and there was no longer any enthusiasm for "Ulysses." Cardiff bought back the rights and tried in vain to raise the financing himself. "The great tragedy of my life," he said sadly. "I know I could have made a marvelous film of that."

Still, he has contributed hugely to several other marvelous films, a fact the academy has recognized by awarding him the honorary Oscar. Cardiff is particularly delighted by the Hollywood tribute because, as a young assistant cameraman of 18 or 19, his heroes were Hollywood cinematographers.

"I was working at Denham Studios [in England] at the time, and Alexander Korda, who ran it, was a great showman. He would bring a

lot of Hollywood stars over, but he would bring Hollywood cameramen too. People like James Wong Howe, who was truly great. Now at that time, I had a chance of promotion, but I chose to remain a camera operator, so I could work with these Hollywood cameramen -- Harry Stradling, Hal Rosson, Charlie Rosher. I learned a lot from them and had such respect for them."

All too often honorary Oscars signal the end of a career, and given Cardiff's age it might be understandable if painting now represented the extent of his activities. But it isn't the case: Next month he will be the cinematographer for an eight-week shoot on a new low-budget British film. "Sabina Anima" is based on a true story about a Russian Jewish woman with mental problems who goes to Vienna to consult Sigmund Freud. He in turn refers her to his fellow psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who embarks on a doomed affair with the woman. Elina Löwensohn (seen in Hal Hartley's "Amateur") will take the lead role; Mason, the youngest of Cardiff's four sons, is a co-producer.

"I'm so happy I'm going to photograph it," Cardiff said. "We've just signed contracts after a very long time. It's so difficult to get films off the ground. But it will be interesting. This woman has mental disorders, which will allow me to use some strange lighting."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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