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Haskell Wexler, A.S.C. (born February 6, 1922) is an American cinematographer, film producer, and director. Wexler was judged to be one of film history's ten most influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild.
Early life and education
Wexler was born to a Jewish family in Chicago, Illinois, in 1922. His parents were Simon and Lottie Wexler, whose children included Jerrold, Joyce (Isaacs), and Yale. He attended the progressive Francis Parker School, where he was best friends with Barney Rosset.
After a year of college at the University of California, Berkeley and a tour in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, Wexler decided to become a filmmaker.
Based in Chicago, Wexler made many documentaries, including The Living City, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Wexler briefly made industrial films in Chicago, then in 1947 became an assistant cameraman. Wexler worked on documentary features and shorts; low-budget docu-dramas such as 1959's The Savage Eye; television's The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; and TV commercials. (He would later found Wexler-Hall, a television commercial production company, with Conrad Hall.) He made ten documentary films with director Saul Landau, including "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang," which aired on PBS and won an Emmy Award and a George Polk Award. Other notable documentaries shot and co-directed (with Landau) by Wexler included "Brazil: A Report on Torture," "The CIA Case Officer," and "The Sixth Sun: A Mayan Uprising in Chiapas."
In 1963, Wexler served as the cinematographer on his first big-budget film, Elia Kazan's America, America. The film had a stunning look, and Kazan was nominated for a Best Director Academy Award. Wexler worked steadily in Hollywood thereafter. Wexler was cinematographer of Mike Nichols' screen version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for which he won the last Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black & White). The following year had Wexler as the cinematographer for the Oscar winning detective drama, In the Heat of the Night (1967), starring Sidney Poitier. His work was notable for enabling the first major Hollywood film in color to be lit with proper consideration for a person of African descent. Wexler recognized that standard lighting tended to produce too much glare on that kind of dark complexion and rendered the features indistinct. Accordingly, Wexler toned it down to feature Poitier with better photographic results.
He won a second Oscar for Bound for Glory (1976), a biography of Woody Guthrie (whom Wexler had met during his time in the Merchant Marine). Bound for Glory was the first feature film to make use of the newly invented Steadicam, in a famous sequence that also incorporated a crane shot. Wexler was also credited as additional cinematographer on Days of Heaven (1978), which won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Nestor Almendros. Wexler was also featured on the soundtrack of the film Underground (1976), recorded on Folkways Records in 1976.
He has worked on documentaries throughout his career. The documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang (1980) earned an Emmy Award; Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970) won an Academy Award. His most recent documentaries include Bus Riders' Union (2000), about the modernization and expansion of bus services in Los Angeles by the organization and its founder Eric Mann, (2006), the Independent Lens documentary, (2000), (2004), and Bringing King to China (2011).
Wexler has also directed fictional movies. Medium Cool (1969), a film written by Wexler and shot in the cinéma vérité style, is studied by film students all over the world for its breakthrough form. It influenced more than a generation of filmmakers. The making of Medium Cool was the subject of a BBC documentary, (2001).
Produced by Lucasfilm, Wexler's film Latino (1985) was chosen for the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. He both wrote and directed the work. Another directing project was (2007), an intimate exploration of the life and times of Harry Bridges, an extraordinary labor leader and social visionary described as "a hero or the devil incarnate, it all depends on your point of view."
In 1988, Wexler won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography for the John Sayles film Matewan (1987), for which he was also nominated for an Academy Award. His work with Billy Crystal in the HBO film 61* (2001) was nominated for an Emmy.
Legacy and honors (career awards)
- In 1993, Wexler won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, the first active cameraman to be awarded.
- In 1996 he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first cinematographer in 35 years to be so honored.
- In 2004, Wexler was the subject of a documentary, , directed by his son, .
- In 2007, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the and the same from the Society of Operating Cameramen.
- Six of the films he worked on have been preserved by the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant": Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (inducted in 2013), Days of Heaven (2007), Medium Cool (2003), In the Heat of the Night (2002), American Graffiti (1995), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1993).
- Haskell Wexler at the Internet Movie Database
- A documentary about Wexler's 1969 film Medium Cool
- Haskell Wexler, ASC, Focuses on the Making of Matewan
- John Patterson, "Through a lens darkly", The Guardian, interview, 2 June 2006
- Underground Album Details at Smithsonian Folkways
- Video interview of Wexler about the film Medium Cool