Haskell Wexler: Innovative cinematographer who won two Oscars in a career devoted to work that espoused left-leaning causes

‘He was brave and gorgeous and I loved him,’ said Jane Fonda

Haskell Wexler was one of Hollywood’s most honoured cinematographers and one whose innovative approach helped him win Oscars for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory. A liberal activist, Wexler shot some of the most socially relevant and influential films of the 1960s and ’70s, including the Jane Fonda-Jon Voight anti-war classic, Coming Home, the Sidney Poitier/Rod Steiger racial drama In the Heat of the Night and the Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was also the rare cinematographer known enough to the general public to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. 

“He was a wonderful father. I owe most of who I am to his wisdom and guidance,” said his son Jeff, a soundman nominated for Oscars for Independence Day and The Last Samurai. “Even in an industry where, when you’re working on a movie, there is not much else you can do, he was always there for me.” Jane Fonda paid tribute to Wexler, writing, “He filmed Coming Home and a documentary with me and Tom Hayden in North Vietnam in 1973. He was brave and gorgeous and I loved him.”

When the elder Wexler wasn’t working on big-budget studio fare, he travelled the world directing and photographing documentaries for his favourite causes. His classic 1969 film Medium Cool mixed documentary and dramatic elements, telling the story of a television photographer played by Robert Forster who covers the violence between Chicago police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The real-life unrest was filmed on the spot, and the film’s cinema-verité approach was closely studied by aspiring film-makers. “I was under surveillance for the entire seven weeks I was in Chicago, by the police, the Army and the Secret Service,” Wexler recalled. 

Throughout his career, Wexler was noted for his versatile and intuitive approach. For Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the last film to receive an Oscar for best black and white cinematography, he used hand-held cameras to capture the tension of the rows between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For In the Heat of the Night, he put silks over the tops of sets and aimed lights at their centres to contribute to the tension between Poitier’s big-city black detective and Steiger’s Southern white lawman. 

As visual consultant on George Lucas’s American Graffiti, he hosed down the streets to achieve a moody, reflective style. He also helped give Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven its hazy, dreamlike atmosphere. 

Wexler was also noted for his clashes with directors. Francis Ford Coppola fired him during the filming of The Conversation, while Milos Forman dropped him during the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wexler sharing the cinematography credit with Bill Butler. “I don’t think there’s a movie I’ve been on that I didn’t think I could direct better,” he said in 2005. 

For one of his documentaries, 2006’s Who Needs Sleep? Wexler turned his attention to the film industry itself, decrying the long hours endured by Hollywood set workers. It was inspired by the death of a worker who fell asleep driving his car after a 19-hour stint on a set. 

Wexler’s other documentaries include The Bus, about the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to integrate the South in the 1960s; Latino, which examined US policy in Nicaragua; Interviews with My Lai Veterans, which shone a light on survivors of US brutality in Vietnam; and Brazil: Report on Torture. 

Born into a well-to-do Chicago family in 1922, Wexler was still at school when he went to work for a photographer involved in the trade union movement. When he was 12, he recorded his family’s vacation in Mussolini’s Italy with his family’s cine camera. His childhood friends included a fellow lifelong rebel, the publisher Barney Rosset, who helped bring down censorship laws by publishing unexpurgated editions of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. 

Wexler left Berkeley 18 months into his course to enlist in the Merchant Marine as the US was about to enter the Second World War. After his ship was torpedoed off the tip of South Africa, he helped some of the sailors join him in a lifeboat. Returning to Chicago, he made films for the United Electrical Workers Union before moving to Hollywood in 1960, where he made his feature debut in 1963 on Elia Kazan’s immigrant drama America, America. 

It brought instant acclaim, and Wexler, a photographer on dozens of feature films, documentaries and TV advertisements, remained active for decades. At the age of 89 he received an Emmy nomination as the cameraman for Billy Crystal’s 61*, the HBO film about Roger Maris’s record-setting home run baseball season. A few years earlier, Wexler was the subject of a documentary, Tell Them Who You Are, directed by another of his sons, Mark.

His last film credit, the biopic To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine, is currently in post-production. “Movies are a voyeuristic experience,” he said. “You have to make the audience feel like they are peeking through a keyhole. I think of myself as the audience. Then I use light, framing and motion to create a focal point.”


Haskell Wexler, film-maker: born Chicago 6 February 1922; married three times (three children); died Santa Monica, California 27 December 2015.