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Cameramen Step Out From Behind Lens

Times Arts Editor

This, it struck me several Marches ago, is the Season of the Gravy Shoulders. It is the time of the awards banquets, one after another, when black tie is worn, presenters present, accepters accept and harassed waiters try to maneuver dollops of meat and vegetables past the close-packed guests.

The American Society of Cinematographers, holding its third annual award festivities Sunday night, did one handy reversal of tradition, withholding the food until after the presentations. This appears to have shortened the acceptance speeches dramatically.

The night’s most significant winner was the veteran Conrad Hall, who took the honors for best feature film cinematography for his work on Robert Towne’s “Tequila Sunrise.”

Hall, who won an Academy Award for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” also shot “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood” and “Fat City” among many other films. He had been inactive, pursuing plans to direct, since completing “Marathon Man” in 1976. He took over the filming of “Tequila Sunrise” after Towne and the original cinematographer stopped seeing eye to eye.

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The runners-up were Peter Miziou for “Mississippi Burning,” Sven Nykvist for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” John Seale for “Rain Man” and Philippe Rousselot for “Dangerous Liaisons.” All except Rousselot have been nominated for Oscars as well. The fifth Academy nomination went to Dean Cundey for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

The other winners were Richard M. Rawlings, Jr. for an episode of “Paradise,” Dietrich Lohmann for his work on the miniseries “War and Remembrance” and Philip Lathrop for “Little Girl Lost” in the society’s specials and pilots category.

The society’s second life achievement award went to 86-year-old Joseph Biroc, who went to work at 15 in film lab at Paragon Studios in Ft. Lee, N.J. Seven years later he became an assistant cameraman at Paramount’s studio on Long Island and in 1927 moved to Hollywood.

He shared the photography credit on Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” and so impressed Capra that he signed Biroc to a contract. Biroc’s more than 80 feature credits include the first of Hollywood’s postwar, post-television flirtations with 3-D, “Bwana Devil.”

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Biroc also did “Home Before Dark,” “The Devil at 4 O’Clock,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and several Robert Aldrich films, among them “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “The Longest Yard.”

Sadly, Biroc had been called to Florida earlier in the day by the serious illness of his daughter. He missed an affectionate presentation by James Stewart and Valerie Harper, following a long clip from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which both Capra and Stewart have called their favorite film.

Like the Academy Award themselves, the ASC awards reflect the increasingly international flavor of film making. The feature nominees are a Frenchman, an Australian, a Swede and a Briton. Conrad Hall, an American who studied at USC, was actually born in Tahiti, the son of James Norman Hall, co-author of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

Lohmann, the miniseries winner, is German, as is Wolfgang Treu, nominated for “Hemingway.” Cristiano Pogany, nominated for “Noble House,” is of Italian-Hungarian descent.

The ASC’s program booklet, uncommonly handsome and interesting, contains some rare photographs of Billy Bitzer, D. W. Griffith’s principal cameraman, and other pioneers at work. The book ends with a grand rhetorical flourish, a prose poem in celebration of the cinematographer by Cecil B. De Mille.

“Amid the strange ingredients of Hollywood--a world typified by the human swarm and the artistic abstraction,” De Mille wrote, “there is a figure unknown to the chants of promoters and glorifiers. His hand has rarely held the scepter of public acclaim, his brow is not crowned with the envied olive leaf which so often settles upon the lordly producer and queens of beauty. This figure, a giant in the industry, is the cameraman--the sine qua non of a profession which often boasts that no one in its ranks is indispensable. No one, I say, save the cameraman. . . .

“He is the custodian of the heart of film making as the writers are of its soul.”


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