Happy Birthday, Vilmos Zsigmond

One of the best cinematographers to ever practice the craft.

He shot Deer Hunter, Deliverance, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These alone would put him in the history books. These are some of the most influential films ever made, and how they LOOK is a huge reason why. He worked up until the end. One of the last films he shot was Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, starring Gena Rowlands.

Some of his shots rank as my favorite of all time.








The Witches Of Eastwick 3




The Long Goodbye 1e



long goodbye

Glenn Kenny wrote a beautiful tribute when he died in 2016. Zsigmond not only worked in a flexible way, adjusting his style to the material, he was a personal artist himself: he shared with us how he saw the world, how much he understood light and what light meant to any given atmosphere (so many people take light for granted), as well as his ability to morph into the mindset of the director and the story.

American cinema of the 1970s, with its influential and distinctive diversity of style, helmed by exciting new directors like Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, John Boorman, Michael Cimino, Steven Spielberg, was helped along in the look/feel of the images by two emigre cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács. Both hailed from Hungary. They were friends. The Russians rolled into Budapest in 1956 to crush the revolution against Soviet rule. It was a brutal crackdown, enraging other nation-members of the USSR. It was an ominous harbinger. (The crackdown enraged the world. Elvis dedicated his performance of “Peace in the Valley,” in his final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 to the people in Hungary, calling for Americans to make donations in support of the Hungarian people. Ed Sullivan announced the address where to send donations, and millions of dollars poured in. Recently, because of that support 50 years ago, a park in Budapest was named for Elvis, and he was also granted posthumous Hungarian citizenship. Like I keep saying, stating the obvious, Elvis is everywhere).

But back to the subject matter: Kovács and Zsigmond, two Hungarian cinematographers, living in Budapest in 1956, roamed the streets, filming the violent crackdown with an Arriflex camera using the last of their 35-mm film. They smuggled the footage out of the country (footage which would soon be seen around the world, and is still part of our collective – or should be – understanding of that event). Kovács and Zsigmond transported their footage by train as far as they could go, then jumped off, and walked into Austria on foot. Eventually, they moved to America. They both got their start shooting biker pictures for Roger Corman (an unofficial film school for so many people). A documentary was made about their friendship, and my friend Matt Zoller Seitz reviewed it for The New York Times.

So let’s rack up the major projects shot by these two emigre-cinematographers from Hungary.

And let’s take particular note of the fact that they continued working on major projects even after the heyday of the 1970s subsided. Their style adjusted to the story. THIS is artistry, as well as professionalism. Style is sometimes obvious, and style is sometimes invisible, but no less valuable to the story.

László Kovács
Easy Rider
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Movie
What’s Up, Doc?
The King of Marvin Gardens
Paper Moon
New York, New York
Paradise Alley
Say Anything
My Best Friend’s Wedding
Miss Congeniality

László Kovács died in 2007.

Vilmos Zsigmond
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
The Long Goodbye
The Sugarland Express
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Deer Hunter
The Rose
Heaven’ Gate
Blow Out
Real Genius
The Witches of Eastwick
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Jersey Girl
Melinda and Melinda
Black Dahlia
Cassandra’s Dream

Zsigmond died in 2016.

Here’s an interesting 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Vilmos Zsigmond, after he finished shooting the wildly out-of-control ambitious Michael Cimino film of Heaven’s Gate (a movie shoot so out-of-control it brought down one of the oldest production companies in America, United Artists. An entire book was written about the Heaven’s Gate shoot.)

In 2016, Blow Out screened at Ebertfest, and the great Nancy Allen was in attendance. This was right after Vilmos died. In the QA afterwards, I asked if she had any stories about him she wanted to share as a tribute. My question comes at around the 30 minute mark, but the whole thing is worth your while.

One of Vilmos Zsigmond’s last films was Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (2014), starring Gena Rowlands as an old lady who decides to take dance lessons, realizing she had given up on having new experiences,. It’s not a very good film, mainly because the script had not been sufficiently adapted from the theatre-script, but Rowlands is great in it (and it’s fun to see Rita Moreno too as Rowlands’ nosy downstairs neighbor in their Palm Beach old folks’ condo-complex.) The film was clearly shot on a low budget. It takes place mostly in interiors, showing its roots as a theatre production, and it’s pretty uninteresting in terms of the visuals, not a lot of flourishes with the camera. Scenes have a dead quality. I went to a SAG screening of the film, with a QA with Rowlands afterwards. They filmed the entire thing in Zsigmond’s country of origin, Hungary, even though it takes place in Florida (hence, all the interiors), so they needed to light those scenes as THOUGH the rooms looked out on the beach with all that pinky-purple ocean light. There is one scene (and it’s worth it to see the film just for this moment), where Gena Rowlands’ character, a person who thought she was done with life, or at least done with new things, sits in a chair in her condo and stares out at the red/gold/purple of the sunrise. She is so relaxed, so peaceful. It’s one of the few moments of pure silence in the film, justified just by the fact that we always want to have the time to watch Gena Rowlands thinking about things.

But part of the magic is how Zsigmond filmed it, and the glow of the light on her face, intense and deep rich golden, the warmth of it, in the moment you can actually feel the warmth. I went into the film not knowing anything about the shoot itself, and when it was revealed that they filmed the whole thing in Hungary, that that light on Reynolds’ face was artificially created start to finish, I was shocked. I didn’t know Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks was filmed in Hungary and I never would have known, because of that LIGHT.

Zsigmond worked with deep and thoughtful artistry even on second-rate material because that’s who he was as a cinematographer.

Also he’s the kind of guy who knew he had to do right by Gena. And he did.

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8 Responses to Happy Birthday, Vilmos Zsigmond

  1. Hi Sheila…Hate to show my ignorance, but can you please tell me which movie that is between Witches of Eastwick and The Rose? I’d probably buy it based on that still alone.

  2. Scott Abraham says:

    “We had lots of time on Heaven’s Gate the first couple of months, then United Artists cut off the money, which meant we couldn’t fool around anymore. If you spend three hours on the lighting, it had better be on the screen.”

    I don’t remember reading any on set accounts from any above-the-lines about the Heavens Gate shoot, only the studio executive book. I wonder if Zsigmond or the others got any perspective about how bonkers things got there?

    • Scott Abraham says:

      (sorry, that quote was from the Rolling Stone interview)

    • sheila says:

      // I wonder if Zsigmond or the others got any perspective about how bonkers things got there? //

      I mean, they had to have picked up on it, right?? I don’t remember quotes from him either in The Final Cut – should check!

  3. Lyrie says:

    Seeing the shot of Scarecrow and realizing… https://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=80141 (4th sene) – another movie reference in there I knew nothing about. I love how your blog allows for those connections because that’s also how you work – and how my brain works: a few very strong obsessions, endlessly branching out!

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