HASKELL WEXLER, the award-winning US cinematographer — and a man who used his camera to support of all kinds of progressive causes — has died in Santa Monica aged 93 writes Peter Frost.
His son Jeff Wexler summed up his father’s life: “His real passion was much larger than just making movies. His real passion was for human beings and justice and peace.”
A lifelong liberal activist, Wexler devoted much of his 60-year career to documentaries on war, politics and the plight of the poor.
Aged 89 and with camera in hand, Wexler was still a regular visitor and supporter of the Occupy Los Angeles camp in 2011. He said he was drawn to the cause of economic justice, feeling a kinship with the Occupy protesters.
He won his first Academy Award for the film Bound for Glory about communist singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie. His other Oscar came for his black-and–white film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In his acceptance speech, among the briefest in Hollywood history, he said: “I hope we can use our art for peace and for love. Thanks.”
Wexler is one of just six cinematographers with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He also received Oscar nominations for best cinematography for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Matewan and Blaze. Among other feature film credits are The Thomas Crown Affair, In the Heat of the Night, Coming Home, Colors, The Babe and American Graffiti.
Wexler made his debut as a director with Medium Cool, a low-budget 1969 film that he wrote, produced and served as director of photography for. It was shot in Chicago during the tumultuous demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic national convention.
At one point, as the camera inches closer to a tear gas cloud and a wall of police officers, a voice off-camera can famously be heard warning: “Look out, Haskell — it’s real!”
He also directed and wrote the 1985 feature film Latino, an indictment of US involvement in Nicaragua.
Wexler was born into a wealthy but progressive Chicago family on February 6 1922. His father made a fortune in electronics but entertained communists such as Paul Robeson and early civil rights activists as well as members of the Abraham Lincoln International Brigade as they prepared to set off for Spain.
Despite this privileged background, young Haskell showed a rebellious streak. At 17 he helped workers organise a strike at his father’s factory.
After a year at university he dropped out in 1941 and signed up for the merchant marines, where he served with Woody Guthrie. By the end of WWII he had become a second officer and had survived 10 days afloat in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean.
By the late 1950s he was working on feature films as a cinematographer.
A US critic once described him as “a fire-breathing old lefty with the crusty soul of a sensitive artist.”
A string of political documentaries certainly support this judgement. He made The Bus about the civil rights movement and Underground about the famous Weathermen underground movement that carried out a series of bombings, jailbreaks, and riots from 1969 through the ’70s.
Most famously at the height of the Vietnam War in 1974 he took Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden to North Vietnam to make Introduction to the Enemy. He and Fonda were viciously attacked as traitors by the media and the US Establishment but the film made a massive contribution to the campaign to end the Vietnam war.
This Obituary first appeared in the Morning Star 30 December 2015.