Conrad Hall, 76; Cinematographer Won Oscars for ‘Butch Cassidy’ and ‘Beauty’
Conrad L. Hall, the cinematographer whose diverse visual vocabulary proved so enduring he won Academy Awards 30 years apart, has died, it was announced Sunday. He was 76.
Hall died Saturday in a Santa Monica hospital of complications from bladder cancer, his wife Susan said.
One of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors of photography, Hall completed his last film only last year -- the Tom Hanks gangster film “Road to Perdition,” directed by Sam Mendes. Hall won Oscars for his cinematography on 1999’s “American Beauty,” also directed by Mendes, and on 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” directed by George Roy Hill.
He received the highest honor, the lifetime achievement award, from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1994, and was to be honored later this month with a similar award from the National Board of Review. In May, UCLA assembled a retrospective of Hall’s films.
Unlike some popular cinematographers whose elaborate lighting designs and camera moves are instantly identifiable, Hall showcased a wide range of timeless cinematic looks. From the sepia glow of “Butch Cassidy,” to the harsh black-and-white “In Cold Blood,” Hall’s work defied easy categorization, except that it was all outstanding.
He could bring something as moribund as chess to life, as he did with “Searching For Bobby Fischer.” Among his most memorable images is a hand-held video sequence of a plastic bag caught in a circle of wind, from “American Beauty.” That film also won the Academy Award for best picture.
For all his singular artistry, however, Hall did not intimidate newcomers: First-time directors like Mendes and Steve Zaillian (“Bobby Fischer”) hired him as their director of photography. He also was popular with some of the most accomplished actors. Paul Newman, for example, appeared in four Hall films, starting with 1966’s “Harper” and ending with “Road to Perdition.”
“With ‘Road to Perdition’ you could virtually take every frame of his work and blow it up and hang it over your fireplace. It was like Rembrandt at work,” Richard Zanuck, a producer of the film, told the Associated Press.
Even at an age when he qualified for every senior citizen discount imaginable, Hall was a tireless worker. He filmed throughout weeks of long nights on “Road to Perdition,” including a sequence where the whole crew, Hall included, was knee-deep in freezing mud.
Born in Tahiti, where he later owned an island, Hall was the son of James Norman Hall, co-author of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” While in school at USC, he initially planned to become a journalist. “I tried for a while to see whether there were any writing genes rattling around, and I signed up for journalism my junior year,” Hall said in an interview last year. “I got a D-plus in creative writing. I decided to look for something else to do.”
Soon thereafter, he drifted toward USC’s school of cinema and television. “I thought, ‘Cinema? You mean like movies? Rubbing elbows with the stars? Making all that money?’ For all the wrong reasons, I signed up, and then had a love affair with the visual language and learned to tell stories like my dad.”
Behind the Lens
After he graduated in 1949, Hall joined with two friends to form a production company called Canyon Films. Among the upstart outfit’s first plans was adapting a short story into a movie. They all wanted to direct, and when they randomly drew job assignments out of a hat, Hall had his first job as a cinematographer. He would keep looking through the lens the rest of his life.
After shooting some footage for feature films such as the 1953 documentary “The Living Desert,” Hall began working steadily on camera crews as an assistant and camera operator in the early 1960s, collecting some credits on television shows like “The Outer Limits” and the rodeo series “Stoney Burke.” He enjoyed his first cinematographer credit on a mainstream Hollywood feature with 1965’s “Wild Seed.”
His profile skyrocketed in the latter half of that decade, in which he amassed a string of credits that for many cinematographers would have made an entire career. The titles included “Morituri,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” From those films, he was nominated for an Oscar four times, winning for “Butch Cassidy.” Among that film’s most unforgettable shots was a wide-angle vista of a barren landscape as the two outlaws raced away from a posse pursuing them on the horizon.
Soon after Hall served as the director of photography on 1976’s “Marathon Man,” he left cinematography to try his hand at screenwriting. “These were stories I wanted to tell,” he said. “I didn’t want to become a director, but I wanted to have the opportunity to direct a film.” The screenplay shift did not pan out, and Hall returned to camera work with the 1987 thriller “Black Widow.” Within a year, he had another Oscar nomination, for “Tequila Sunrise.”
“I think one of the reasons people quit is because they’re afraid they won’t be able to get better and better; that they have come to a zenith of some kind,” Hall said in “Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers.”
“You feel like you’ve done everything and all there is left to do is to just do it well each time. But you know you haven’t done it all because everything keeps evolving and changing.”
Hall was married from 1969 to 1975 to Katharine Ross, who played Etta Place in “Butch Cassidy.” Hall let her operate a camera in the making of that film, forcing director Hill to ban Ross from the set when she wasn’t acting. Hall also formed a commercial production company with colleague Haskell Wexler.
He was nominated for the cinematography Oscar nine times. His most recent nomination, for which he did not win, was for 1998’s “A Civil Action.”
Among Hall’s survivors is a son, Conrad W. Hall, often a member of his father’s camera crew and now one of the town’s fast-rising young cinematographers, having filmed “Panic Room.” His other survivors include daughters Kate Hall-Feist and Naia Hall-West, and sister Nancy Rutgers.
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In his nearly 50-year career, Conrad L. Hall was nominated for nine Academy Awards (indicated with * ) and won two, for “American Beauty” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“Road to Perdition” (2002)
* “American Beauty” (1999)
“Without Limits” (1998)
* “A Civil Action” (1998)
“Love Affair” (1994)
* “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993)
“Jennifer Eight” (1992)
“Class Action” (1991)
* “Tequila Sunrise” (1988)
“Black Widow” (1987)
“It Happened One
“Marathon Man” (1976)
* “The Day of the Locust” (1975)
“Catch My Soul” (1974)
“Electra Glide in Blue” (1973)
“Fat City” (1972)
* “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
“The Happy Ending (1969)
“Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969)
Truman Capote’s “Trilogy” (1969)
“Hell in the Pacific” (1968)
“Cool Hand Luke” (1967)
* “In Cold Blood” (1967)
“Divorce American Style” (1967)
* “The Professionals” (1966)
* “Morituri” (1965)
“Wild Seed” (1965)
“Edge of Fury” (1958)
“Running Target” (1956)