Owen Roizman, a groundbreaking cinematographer who lensed a great many essential films over a 25-year career in features, has died, according to a report in Variety. The Brooklyn-born Roizman brought his talents to almost every conceivable genre, from action to horror to Westerns to comedy and even a legendary live concert performance. He worked with directors William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, Elaine May, Sidney Lumet, Bob Fosse, John Huston, Lawrence Kasdan, and Barry Sonnenfeld. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won an honorary award in 2017. He was 86 years old.

Roizman’s father, Sol Roizman, was a cameraman for Movietone News and his uncle, Morrie Roizman, produced short subjects and worked as an editor. He entered the business by working in television commercials, landing his first feature gig as a director of photography with 1970’s Stop! This was Bill Gunn’s directorial debut, and after it received an X rating, it was shelved by Warner Bros. Gunn was only the second African American director of a studio picture at the time; the movie, shot in Puerto Rico and featuring gay love scenes, has since only played at museum screenings.

But clearly, enough people in the industry saw it and liked Roizman’s cinematography. As such, William Friedkin hired him to shoot The French Connection, and the two pretty much changed the way we think about gritty, urban law enforcement. The 1971 film won Oscars for best picture, best director, best actor (Gene Hackman), and best adapted screenplay (Ernest Tidyman), as well as nominations for best editing and Roy Scheider’s supporting role. It was also Roizman’s first nomination for best cinematography. (He lost to Oswald Morris’s work on Fiddler on the Roof.) Fifty years later, the chase scene through Brooklyn under the elevated train more than holds up. 

And much like Popeye Doyle’s automobile, his career floored it from here, notching one essential movie after the other. After The French Connection, he shot the mafia comedy The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, based on Jimmy Breslin’s book, then Play It Again, Sam a rare Woody Allen movie (based on his play) that he didn’t direct himself (Herbert Ross did) and which trades his classic New York setting for San Fransisco (there was a film worker’s strike in the Big Apple that summer.) After that, another comedy, this time The Heartbreak Kid for Elaine May starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepherd, and Jeannie Berlin. Then came another entertainment landmark.

After director Bob Fosse, composers Fred Ebb and John Kander, and 26-year-old Liza Minnelli finished Cabaret they decided to do what came naturally to them: they put on a show. An appearance at the Lyceum Theater in New York was shot for television, with costumes designed by Halston and Marvin Hamlisch as musical director. Fosse rejected using videotape and insisted on having eight 16mm cameras, and put Owen Roizman in charge of it all. NBC’s broadcast in September 1970 was the television event of the season, winning four Primetime Emmys off of eight nominations, including one for Roizman. (Howard Schwartz won the trophy for the ABC Movie of the Week Night of Terror.)

Proving Roizman’s ability to work in any genre, though, his next gig, once again with William Friedkin, took his camera to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (and a soundstage in New York) to film what many consider the scariest movie of all time: The Exorcist.

The performances, the makeup, and the sound effects all combine to make The Exorcist the masterpiece it is, but its mix of the mundane and supernatural, shot in what Roizman called a “slick, controlled” style, makes it so indescribably creepy. Famously, the bedroom set was climate controlled to a brutal 20 degrees below zero to achieve the steamed breath look, which Roizman then backlit for further effect. 

The movie terrified audiences (then and now!) and earned Roizman his second Oscar nomination. (He lost to Sven Nykvist for Cries and Whispers. Tough choice, there, admittedly.) 

Then it was back to New York City’s grimy streets—and under them! The Taking of the Pelham One, Two, Three, Joseph Sargent’s is the quintessential 1970s urban crime picture, starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Héctor Elizondo, Tony Roberts, Doris Roberts, and all the clang and chaos of a busy subway. It has wall-to-wall energy and tension, but also one of the funniest last shots in the history of cinema.

Roizman went back to comedy (or, at least, satire) for the 1975 adaptation of The Stepford Wives (this time shooting an over-the-top suburban utopia), then made his first of five collaborations with Sydney Pollack for the Robert RedfordFaye Dunaway paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor. This one also has an incredible last shot (and on Roizman’s favorite turf, the streets of New York). After this, he went out West with director Irvin Kershner and actor Richard Harris for a retread of the controversial but successful 1970 film A Man Called Horse called (perhaps not surprisingly) The Return of a Man Called Horse. It was enough of a success to inspire a second sequel, but is not exactly essential cinema. 

Luckily, his next feature (after working on a short, Independence, with the legendary director John Huston) is one of the touchstones of the era: Network.

His lone collaboration with Sidney Lumet proved that Roizman was just as skilled at capturing iconic images indoors as he did on the streets. 

In Lumet’s book Making Movies, he wrote of his and Roizman’s visual approach that “the movie was about corruption. So we corrupted the camera.” He elaborated, saying, “we started with an almost naturalistic look. For the first scene between Peter Finch and Bill Holden, on Sixth Avenue at night, we added only enough light to get exposure. As the picture progressed, camera setups became more rigid, and more formal. The lighting became more and more artificial. The next-to-final scene — where Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and three network gray suits decide to kill Peter Finch — is lit like a commercial. The camera setups are static and framed like still pictures. The camera had become a victim of television.”

Network earned Roizman his third cinematography Oscar nomination, which he lost to Haskell Wexler’s work on Bound For Glory. (These were years of many masterpieces.)

After Network, he shot Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman and the ill-conceived Beatles bomb Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, and George Burns. It’s, uh, far from a good movie, but it certainly has a look!

After a gig shooting additional concert scenes for The Rose, he worked on The Electric Horseman (with Pollack again), The Black Marble (for Harold Becker), the Robert De Niro-Robert Duvall film True Confessions (back with Grosbard), Absence of Malice (Pollack), Taps (Becker), and another landmark comedy, Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie. While it may not seem like a Roizman special, it does have many scenes in a television studio (like Network) and the famous shot on the streets of New York.

Tootsie earned Roizman his fourth Oscar nomination, which he lost to Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor for their work on Gandhi. (This beat out E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Das Boot, too, by the way.)

Roizman’s next movie was Harold Becker’s Vision Quest, which led to work in music videos, shooting Madonna’s “Crazy For You” and “Gambler.” He collaborated with Lawrence Kasdan for I Love You To Death (underrated movie!), once more with Pollack for Havana (looked great!), then on the former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s first feature, The Addams Family. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Sonnenfeld said hiring Roizman was a key element to that movie’s success. “I felt I needed someone who was so good that I would be forced to work with the actors and not hang out at the camera.” 

His last three movies were for Kasdan: Grand Canyon, Wyatt Earp, and French Kiss. Wyatt Earp earned him a final Oscar nomination, which he ultimately lost to John Toll for Legends of the Fall.

In 2002, seven years after his last movie, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s cinematographers’ branch selected Roizman as their governor. He held the position until 2011. He was also president of the American Society of Cinematographers from 1997 to 1998, which gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1997. 

In 2017, Roizman was given an honorary prize for the totality of his career. Dustin Hoffman, in presenting him with his honor, remarked that the two movies they made together, Straight Time and Tootsie, “couldn’t be more different,” but Roizman “was able to translate the nuances of the tone and shading of each story into literal nuances of tone and shading.”

Upon news of his death, he was remembered fondly on social media by filmmakers Christopher McQuarrie, Sean Baker, Ben Stiller, Richard Shepard, and Jon Kasdan.

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