Who makes our movies, our pop songs, our TV shows? It's the stars out front, right? The actors and singers, maybe the better-known directors and writers. All that above-the-line talent.
If you say so. This week, though, I'm thinking of the unknown elves of our popular culture, the creative artists who contribute in major ways to our entertainments yet whose identities get lost in the collaborative scrum.
Raise a glass for Vilmos Zsigmond, who died on New Year's Day at the age of 85, and for Haskell Wexler, who left us two days after Christmas, 93 and as cantankerous as ever. If you're a deep-dyed movie geek or were paying close attention to film credits from the 1960s onward, you know their names; otherwise, probably not. Both men were cinematographers. Both are directly responsible for the look of our cultural memories.
Wexler got his start first. The black-and-white domestic war-zone of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) is his, as is the sweltering black-vs.-white Southern landscapes of "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) and the mod-a-go-go split-screen Boston of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968). Most famously, Wexler shot almost all of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) before getting canned over artistic or political differences (depending on who's talking). The Depression vistas of the Woody Guthrie biopic "Bound for Glory" (1976) and the brooding interiors of "Coming Home" (1978) are his as well. Plus, Wexler wrote and directed a classic counterculture drama about media ethics and political repression, 1969's "Medium Cool."
Zsigmond fled Communist Hungary in the late 1950s and washed up in Los Angeles, where he worked on legendary drive-in swill (1964's "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?") before graduating to landmarks like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971) for Robert Altman, "Deliverance" (1972) for John Boorman," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) for Steven Spielberg, and "The Deer Hunter" (1978) and "Heaven's Gate" (1980) for Michael Cimino. That last film destroyed its director's career but no one has anything bad to say about Zsigmond's casually majestic period camerawork. He found poetry in realism, beauty in the mundane. The piercing final images of "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," with Warren Beatty dying in a snowstorm as Julie Christie slips into an opium glow, may have been conceived by Altman but were breathed into life by Zsigmond.
But we like to have our heroic artists, our winners, and we tend to like them singular. The auteur theory that came out of 1950s France to swallow the world — the one that says a movie is stamped with the personality of its dir
ector — is only occasionally true. Film (and television, and popular music, and so much of the creative commerce we call our arts) is in fact an organized potluck from top to bottom, with contributors and craftspeople working invisibly behind the scenes and rarely getting their due.
So how about giving them their due? Not just Zsigmond and Wexler, but pop/disco impresario Robert Stigwood, who died this past Monday at 81. Without Stigwood, no Bee Gees, no "Saturday Night Fever," no "Grease" film version, and thus, very likely, no John Travolta on the big screen. You can praise Stigwood or curse him for all of the above, but in all likelihood "Stayin' Alive" just started going through your head again. Go ahead, do the dance moves.
Who knows who Louis DiGiaimo is? You don't. I didn't before I read the obituaries following his death at 77 on Dec. 19 and learned that he was the casting director for "The Godfather," "The Exorcist," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Rain Man," "Gladiator," and nearly 80 more movies. Thanks to DiGiaimo, Luca Brasi has the face and bulk of actor Lenny Montana, the devil came to Linda Blair, and Brad Pitt got his big break sexing up Geena Davis in "Thelma & Louise."
Let us pause to venerate actor Jason Wingreen, who died on Christmas day at 95. His face hovered behind the neighborhood bar on TV's "All in the Family" and "Archie Bunker's Place" but his lasting niche in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame is as the uncredited voice of intergalactic bounty hunter Boba Fett in 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back."
Let us honor the memory of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who left us last Nov. 4 at 65 and without whom E.T. would never have phoned home. As one-time baby sitter to the Coppola kids and long-time wife to Harrison Ford (they divorced in 2004), Mathison's life was deeply intertwined with the New Hollywood generation, and her final collaboration with Steven Spielberg, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The BFG," will be dedicated to her memory when it opens July 1.
Patricia Norris? Never heard of her, right? Before her death last February, she designed the costumes for more than 60 movies, including "Scarface" — those gaudy '80s duds! — "Frances," "The Candidate," and "12 Years a Slave." Six career Oscar nominations and no win, but she did get an Emmy for her work on "Twin Peaks," one of many David Lynch projects she wrapped in surreal finery.
June Randall? She died at 87 on Jan. 18 of last year, so let's have a belated cheer for the script supervisor — Stanley Kubrick called her his "continuity girl" — on more than 100 movies and TV shows, including five James Bond films and three Kubrick classics, "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon," and "The Shining." What's a script supervisor? Only the person who organizes the day-by-day shooting schedule and keeps track of every item and every person in every shot. Without her — and it's almost always a her, and almost always unheralded — no movie at all.
How about James Horner, who died in a plane crash at 61 last June? His score for "Titanic" is permanently encoded on your DNA, and his music immeasurably affects how audiences have emotionally processed such films as "Avatar," "Apollo 13," "Braveheart," "Glory," and "Cocoon." Or Robert Chartoff, who passed away the same month at 81, and without whose skills as a producer we wouldn't have the first "Rocky" and every "Rocky" thereafter, not to mention "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff," and dozens of other films.
These people made the dreams we still live with. They didn't do it for the fame but for the pleasure of craft and creativity. My point? Maybe we should be appreciating them better while they're alive.