Legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler died today. His son Jeff Wexler reported on his father’s website and via Facebook that the Oscar-winning Wexler “died peacefully in his sleep.” Haskell Wexler was 93.
Wexler won the last Oscar cinematography award that went to a black-and-white film for Who’s Afraid Of Virgina Woolf? and another Academy Award for the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory. He also was nominated for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Matewan and Blaze. He also picked up an Oscar in 1970 for the documentary short “Interviews With My Lai Veterans,” directed with Richard Pearce.
“His cinematography was an inspiration. He was a strong fighter for union rights and for the welfare of the members,” Steven Poster, national President of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, told Deadline. “His work in the recognition of the danger of long work hours will always be remembered and appreciated.” In a subsequent statement from the Guild, Poster added that although Wexler “had his differences with the Guild over the years, we admired his dedication and passion to be an instrument for social change.”
Wexler threw his support behind the movement calling for accountability in the on-set death of Midnight Rider crew member Sarah Jones. Wexler described Jones’ death in a 2014 train incident an act of “criminal negligence.” Wexler co-founded a group called 12on/12off which advocates an overhaul of current standards that allow for excessively long work hours and questionably safe working conditions on film and TV sets across the industry.
One of his documentaries, Who Needs Sleep, addressed the danger to film crews of overlong shooting schedules that result in fatigue — and people falling asleep on the road home.
A longtime liberal activist, Wexler photographed some of the most socially relevant and influential films of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Jane Fonda-Jon Voight anti-war classic, Coming Home, the Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger racial drama In the Heat of the Night, The Conversation, and American Graffiti as well as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Feature films in the 1970s and ’80s included Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, Colors, Other People’s Money and The Rolling Stones: Live at the Max. Later features included The Secret of Roan Inish, Canadian Bacon, Mulholland Falls and The Rich Man’s Wife, all in the mid-90s.
One of his most influential films, 1969’s Medium Cool, was a fictional but documentary-style depiction of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. Bold in attitude and execution, Medium Cool was financed by Wexler for $800,000. Although it owed a nod to the work of Jean-Luc Godard, it was far ahead of its time for a Hollywood film.
With co-director Saul Landau he shot Brazil: A Report on Torture and An Interview with President Allende (both 1971), The Swine Flu Caper, The CIA Case Officer, 1982’s Quest for Power: Sketches of the American New Right and Target Nicaragua: Inside a Secret War.
Other documentaries included Hail Columbia and Introduction to the Enemy. He also shot the 1980 film No Nukes. His 1975 documentary Underground (with Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson), which dealt with the leftist faction known as the Weathermen, resulted in a controversial attempt at seizure of his materials by the FBI, which prompted an outcry among certain social-minded Hollywood celebrities.
In the mid to late 2000s, he was d.p. on a number of politically minded documentaries for other directors.
Wexler appeared in numerous documentaries about other directors and cinematographers, including Todd McCarthy’s 1992 Visions of Light.
In 2013’s Four Days in Chicago, he returned to the setting of Medium Cool and his hometown to document the Occupy Movement’s demonstrations against the 2012 NATO Summit.
Wexler also was one of the rare cinematographers to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. He also was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Independent Documentary Assn. and the the Society of Operating Cameramen.
In 2005, Wexler was the subject of a documentary, Tell Them Who You Are, directed by his son, Mark Wexler. His son Jeff works as a sound mixer.
In addition to his sons, Wexler is survived by third wife Rita Taggart, an actress and cinematographer, and a daughter, Kathy.
(Information from Deadline corporate sibling Variety was used in parts of this report.)