Cinema/Chicago News

Remembering Haskell Wexler (1922 – 2015)

Published: January 6, 2016  |  Filed under: Festival News

We were deeply saddened to learn of the recent passing of one of the most influential cinematographers of our time and Cinema/Chicago Advisory Board Member, Haskell Wexler. The two-time Academy Award-winner and Chicago native died on Dec. 27, 2015, at the age of 93. His son, Oscar-nominated sound man Jeff Wexler, told The Associated Press that Wexler died peacefully in his sleep.


In the 1950’s filmmaker and Chicagoan Haskell Wexler began his career shooting industrial films and commercials for Fred Niles Studios before moving on to shoot television shows, including “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” He received five Acadamy Award nominations for his cinematography, in total, plus one Emmy Award in a career that has spanned six decades. He won Oscars in both black & white and color, for Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976).


In addition to his work in cinematography, Wexler directed the seminal late ’60s film – and Festival Official Selection – Medium Cool (1969) and directed and/or shot many documentaries that display his progressive political views. Wexler is also known for providing memorable and distinctive looks to Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Wexler also lensed Ashby’s Vietnam-era Coming Home (1978), John Sayles’ union-busting tale Matewan (1987), the urban gang drama Colors (1988), the biopics Blaze (1989) and The Babe (1992), Sayles’ Irish fable The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) and the period crime drama Mulholland Falls (1996).


Chicago International Film Festival Founder and Artistic Director Michael Kutza was fortunate to have a relationship with all three of the (now deceased) famous Wexler Brothers. “I fondly remember the Wexlers and all they did for Chicago, the Festival. Jerry, the real estate tycoon/genius helped change the skyline of Chicago. Yale, the actor/film producer, went on to manage the family hotel dynasty. Yale was also our Festival Chairman of the Board from 1991 to 1993! Haskell, the eldest of the brothers, really shook up City Hall when he dared to make Medium Cool which truly irritated the then Mayor, Richard J. Daley,” says Kutza.


The Chicago International Film Festival hosted Wexler several times over the course of his career, starting with the 21st Chicago International Film Festival in 1985, where Haskell Wexler’s Latino (1985) was shown. At the 36th Chicago International Film Festival, Haskell Wexler served on the Festival’s Feature Film Jury. His documentary Bus Riders Union (2000) received its Chicago premiere while competing in the Festival’s Documentary Competition.


At the 49th Chicago International Film Festival, Haskell Wexler was awarded a Gold Hugo Career Achievement Award. Medium Cool (1969) was shown along with a 30-minute short, Medium Cool Revisited (2013), reflecting on the film 45 years later and incorporating footage from the 2012 NATO protests in Chicago. Shot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the film blurs the lines between staged and documentary action as protesters and police face off. Medium Cool captures the soul of a turbulent era and takes a penetrating look at America’s continuing fascination with sensationalism and violence.

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