Cinematographer and Director. Nationality: Spanish. Born: Barcelona, 30 October 1930. Education: Attended University of Havana, Cuba, Ph.D.; Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Rome, 1956–57; studied with Hans Richter, City College of New York. Career: 1948—emigrated with his family to Cuba; 1950—made amateur 8mm film with Tomas Gutiérrez Alea, Una confusion contidiana; 1957–59—taught Spanish, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York; 1959–61—made documentaries for Cuban film institute (ICAIC); 1960s—worked in France as cinematographer: also director of TV documentaries (some 25 films in all), 1966—first feature film as cinematographer, Rohmer's La Collectionneuse; 1984—directed first full-length documentary, Improper Conduct. Awards: Academy Award for Days of Heaven, 1978; César award for Le Dernier Métro, 1980. Died: Of cancer, in New York, 4 March 1992.
Films as Cinematographer (Features):
La Collectionneuse (Rohmer); The Wild Racers (Haller)
More (Schroeder); Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud's)(Rohmer); L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child) (Truffaut)
Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board) (Truffaut); Le Genou de Claire (Claire's Knee) (Rohmer)
Les Deux Anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls) (Truffaut); La Vallée (The Valley) (Schroeder)
L'Amour l'après-midi (Chloe in the Afternoon) (Rohmer)
Femmes au soleil (Dreyfus); The Gentleman Tramp (Patterson)
La Gueule ouverte (Pialat); General Idi Amin Dada (Schroeder); Cockfighter (Born to Kill) (Hellman); Mes petites amoureuses (Eustache)
L'Histoire d'Adèle H. (The Story of Adèle H.) (Truffaut); Maîtresse (The Mistress) (Schroeder)
Die Marquise von O . . . (The Marquise of O . . . ) (Rohmer); Des journées entières dans les arbres (Days in the Trees) (Duras); Cambio de sexo (Aranda)
L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women) (Truffaut); La Vie devant soi (La Vie continue) (Mizrahi); Beaubourg (Rossellini—doc); Koko (Schroeder—doc); Goin' South (Nicholson)
La Chambre verte (The Green Room) (Truffaut); Days of Heaven (Malick); Perceval le Gaullois (Rohmer)
L'Amour en fuite (Love on the Run) (Truffaut); Kramer vs. Kramer (Benton); The Blue Lagoon (Kleiser)
Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro) (Truffaut)
Still of the Night (Benton); Sophie's Choice (Pakula); Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach) (Rohmer); Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours; Finally, Sunday!) (Truffaut)
Places in the Heart (Benton)
"Life Lessons" ep. of New York Stories (Allen, Coppola and Scorsese)
Billy Bathgate (Benton)
Films as Cinematographer (Shorts):
58–59 (+ d, sc)
El acqua (Gomez—doc); El tomate (Canel—doc); Construcciones rurales (Arenal—doc); Coopertivas agropecurias (Gutiérrez Alea—doc) (co)
Gente en la playa (+ d, sc)
"Place de l'Etoile" and "Saint-German-des-Pres" eps. of Paris vu Par . . . (Paris Seen By . . . ) (Rohmer and Douchet); Le Père Noel a les yeux bleus (Eustache)
Les Bluets dans la tête (Brach)
Escuela rural (+ d—short):
Mauvaise conduite (Improper Conduct) (+ co-d—feature doc)
Nadie escuchaba (Nobody Listened) (+ co-pr, co-sc, co-d)
By ALMENDROS: book—
Un Homme à la caméra, Paris, 1980; as A Man with a Camera, New York, 1984.
By ALMENDROS: articles—
"Neorealist Cinematography," in Film Culture (New York), no. 20, 1959.
Film Dope (London), no. 1, December 1972.
Cinéma (Paris), January 1973.
Dirigido por . . . (Barcelona), April 1974.
Filmkritik (Munich), January 1976.
Cinématographe (Paris), Summer 1976.
Film Reader (Evanston, Illinois), no. 2, 1977.
"Buñuel, cinéaste hispanique," in Cinématographe (Paris), September 1977.
Revue du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1978.
Film Comment (New York), September-October 1978.
On Rohmer in Cinématographe (Paris), February 1979.
On Days of Heaven in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1979.
"Témoignage: mon expérience américaine," in Cinématographe (Paris), June 1979.
Ecran (Paris), 15 December 1979.
On Kramer vs. Kramer in Millimeter (New York), March 1980.
On Kramer vs. Kramer in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1980.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1980.
Film Français (Paris), 3 October 1980.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1981.
Cinema e Cinema (Bologna), April-July 1982.
Mediafilm (Brussels), Winter 1982.
Millimeter (New York), February 1983.
Film Français (Paris), 18 March 1983.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1983.
On Sophie's Choice in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1983.
"Bronte-Buñuel," in Cinématographe (Paris), September-October 1983.
In Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers, by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.
Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1984.
Cinématographe (Paris), March 1984.
"Sunrise," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1984.
On Improper Conduct in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1984.
Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 7, no. 1–2, 1985.
Cinématographe (Paris), July 1985.
"Almendros and Documentary," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1985–86.
Films and Filming (London), June 1986 + filmo.
Film Comment (New York), vol. 23, no. 4, July-August 1987.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), September 1987.
Kino (Warsaw), vol. 21, no. 11, November 1987.
Films and Filming (London), January 1988.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1989.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April and May 1989.
On ALMENDROS: articles—
Canby, Vincent, on Claire's Knee in New York Times, 28 February 1971.
Predal, R., in Cinéma (Paris), January 1973.
Film Français (Paris), 28 January 1977.
Avant-Scène (Paris), 1 November 1978.
Cinema 2002 (Madrid), December 1978.
Film Français (Paris), 2 February 1979.
Trusell, H., on Goin' South in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1979.
Fieschi, J., in Cinématographe (Paris), no. 56, 1980.
Le Technicien du Film (Paris), 15 December 1979–15 January 1980.
Thevenet, Homero Alsina, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1980
Williams, A. L., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1980.
Cinéma Français (Paris), January 1981.
Sarris, Andrew, "The Cinematographer as Superstar," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1981.
Carlesimo, C., "Painting with Light," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1981.
Guttierez, Tomas, "Cuba Si, Almendros No!", in Village Voice (New York), 2 October 1984.
White, A., in Films in Review (New York), December 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1988.
Filmcritica (Montepulciano), vol. 15, no. 391–392, January-February 1989.
* * *
Of the many splendid images Nestor Almendros recorded, two fleeting ones in Kramer vs. Kramer are remarkable for their pure visual power. The morning after Joanna has left Ted, he calls home from his office hoping she will answer, and the film cuts to two shots, one of their living room, one of the bedroom. Although we have seen the apartment earlier in the film, it is eerie how sad the rooms look without people: the colors are muted, the light is dim, the furnishings—the chairs, the lamp, the coffee table, the plant in the corner, the unanswered telephone on the bed—seem cold and oppressive in the semidarkness. The brief shots make the apartment's emptiness a metaphor for Ted Kramer's suddenly vacant life. Their poignant simplicity is not only a sterling example of Almendros's unaffected technical mastery, but an illustration of a common Almendros technique: producing telling images that capture a film's mood, crystalize its theme, and solidify its emotional content. One thinks of the rolling fields of wheat and the lone, erect farmhouse in Days of Heaven, Catherine Deneuve's luminously sculptured face in Le Dernier Métro, the dappled forest in L'Enfant sauvage, the spellbinding closeups of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, the crazed figure of Adèle H. wandering the sun-drenched streets of Barbados.
In his book of professional reminiscences, A Man with a Camera, Almendros demystifies much of the cinematographic process. For him, the images a director of photography records have less to do with technical trickery or special equipment than with sensibility. "The main qualities a director of photography needs," Almendros writes, "are plastic sensitivity and a solid cultural background. So-called cinematographic technique is only of secondary importance." Further, Almendros recognizes his responsibility of maintaining a cinematic tradition. The long-term function of the cinematographer, he believes, is to serve "as depository or transmitter of progress or discoveries in what has been called 'cinematographic language."' Accordingly, the sum of Almendros's film work is more than a list of credits for films he has lighted, composed, and photographed; it is, as François Truffaut says in the preface of Almendros's book, a lustrous chronicle of an artistic vocation.
Cinematically, Almendros used standard photographic conventions expertly. Menacing or disturbed characters in his films often move through chiaroscuro spaces (thus the night is identified with the schizophrenic Nathan in Sophie's Choice, and the love-obsessed Adèle in Histoire d'Adèle H. cloaks herself in shadows and half-lights). Film noir lighting is employed to heighten suspense in thrillers such as the moody Still of the Night, the more light-hearted Vivement dimanche!, and the romantic Le Dernier Métro. And foreboding occurrences are sometimes underscored by darkness (the coming of the storm in Places in the Heart, Sophie's horrifying nighttime monologues recounting her tortured past in the Nazi concentration camps).
But beyond the inspired use of photographic language, an equally striking aspect of Almendros's work is his inversion of cinematographic clichés. More often than not Almendros contrasted a scene's mood with his visual rendering of it. Again and again in his films, the more emotionally complex a scene, the more brightly, naturally, and evenly it is lit. There is, for instance, the tangled bedroom farce that plays itself out amidst the sunny serenity in Pauline à la plage. Or the simple blacks and whites of Maud's apartment (the set was purposely painted in only those two colors) in Ma nuit chez Maud, which contrast sharply with the wide range of gray ambiguities—moral, sexual, and psychological—facing the protagonist during his snow-bound night with Maud. A more emotionally charged instance is Joanna Kramer's disturbing departure from her husband in the full, flat glare of their well-lit apartment.
Almendros's use of this technique is subversive: undermining his pictorial perfection, he creates an unpredictable world. As a viewer you appreciate the visual grace of the images, but become wary of lingering too long over a striking composition lest it explode in your face. In the cinematography of Almendros, tranquility is tenuous and likely to be violently shattered, like the sudden gunshot in broad daylight which kills the husband in Places in the Heart, the shooting of Richard Gere in Days of Heaven that breaks the river's mirror-like surface, or the last repose of Nathan and Sophie, locked in a deadly embrace as midday's golden light pours through the bedroom windows.
Almendros undercut his formal elegance because he realized that sorrow, pain, and sometimes evil lurk just beneath the surface of the finest, most evenly illuminated compositions. There is more to Almendros than pretty pictures. His camera eye sees down to the core of things, sees life's duplicitous nature, the coexistence of beauty and treachery, the terror that can underly the wondrous. In Kramer vs. Kramer the uniform lighting of the courtroom sequence creates a measured calmness counterpoised by the increasingly painful proceedings. What gives Almendros's visuals their charge is this kind of collision of surface with substance.
Most of Almendros's earliest credits as cinematographer were on the films of French New Wave directors, especially Truffaut and Rohmer. Beginning with Days of Heaven in 1978, he began working on American as well as European films, most often with Robert Benton; Almendros was the cinematographer of Kramer vs. Kramer, Still of the Night, Places in the Heart, Nadine, and Billy Bathgate. He also was the cinematographer of Truffaut's final features. Almendros himself directed or co-directed only a few films, the most notable of which were very personal expressions of his political/humanist beliefs and abhorrence of oppression in Castro's Cuba: Mauvaise conduite (Improper Conduct), which offers evidence of persecution against artistic and political dissenters and, especially, male homosexuals (which Vincent Canby called "something very rare in films—an intelligent attack on Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution" and "the first legitimately provocative anti-Castro film I've seen"); and the revealingly titled Nadie escuchaba (Nobody Listened), which further chronicles tyranny and human rights violations in Cuba.
But Almendros, who succumbed to cancer in 1992 at the all-too-young age of 61, will be best remembered as a cinematographer. In the preface to A Man with a Camera, Truffaut wrote that Almendros "loves the cinema religiously; he obliges us to share his faith, and proves that we can speak of light with words." Turning Truffaut's words around yields another truth: Almendros could speak with words of light.
—Charles Ramírez Berg, updated by Rob Edelman
Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros (1930–1992) won an Academy Award for his work in creating the breathtaking vistas of land and sky meant to depict Texas around 1900 in the movie Days of Heaven. But Almendros was equally proud of the work he did for such acclaimed French directors as François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer when they were at the peak of their careers, and also made two documentary films about human rights abuses in Cuba. A three-time political refugee during his lifetime, "Almendros … realized that sorrow, pain, and sometimes evil lurk just beneath the surface of the finest, most evenly illuminated compositions," noted the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers.
Almendros was born in Barcelona, Spain, on October 30, 1930, and was one of three children in his family. His father was a Republican Loyalist and during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) he fought against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco (1892–1975). The Republican Loyalists were fighting to preserve the Second Spanish Republic and its progressive liberal ideals, but Franco's side triumphed in the end. It was a brutal and bloody war, and there were repercussions for years to come for the Loyalists; because of this, Almendros's father was forced into exile and fled to Cuba.
Almendros and his family joined their father in Cuba in 1948. Young Almendros earned a doctorate from the University of Havana, and then fled a Cuban regime headed by General Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973), which began cracking down on University of Havana student protests in 1955 with the use of military force. He settled in Rome, where he enrolled in film school at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. A friend of his from Havana, a law student and future filmmaker two years his senior named Tomas Gutiérrez Alea (1928–1996), had already graduated from the school. In 1950 the pair made an eight-millimeter film together, Una confusion contidiana (A Common Confusion), which was Almendros's first foray into the art form.
Settling in New York City after his stint in Italy, Almendros took classes at the City College of New York, and taught Spanish at nearby Vassar College, a private school in the Hudson River valley town of Poughkeepsie. Enthused by the promise of a socialist revolution back in Cuba that ousted Batista, Almendros returned to Havana and became an early supporter of Fidel Castro (born 1926), who came to power in early 1959. For the next two years Almendros worked for a filmmaking collective co-founded by Alea, making documentary films about the sweeping political changes taking place during this period. Like other progressive-minded young filmmakers at the collective, he was fascinated by fresh ideas coming out of post-World War II Europe, especially French New Wave cinema. Franç Truffaut (1932–1984) was among the pioneers of this movement, which featured realistic portrayals of current social and political issues as well as experimentation on several technical levels, such as lighting, camera angles, and editing.
Almendros was asked to weigh in on a top ten list of the best films of 1959, and included Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the tale of a disenchanted Parisian teen that would become an enormous influence on a generation of filmmakers to follow. On his list, Almendros chose this over a release from the Soviet Union, Ballad of a Soldier, that Castro preferred. His preference for one of the decadent West's products over a tautly constructed socialist fable was the beginning of the end for Almendros's career in Cuba. Once again he fled, but this time chose France because it was home to the filmmakers of the New Wave. He brought with him a single print of a short film he had made.
Almendros struggled to find work, and was hampered by the lack of an official work permit. In what has become a classic documentary film from this era, 1964's Paris vu Par … (Paris Seen By …), his work as the cinematographer for two segments went uncredited. One of these was the "Place de l'Étoile" contribution from Éric Rohmer, and that job began a long and productive working relationship between Almendros and Rohmer (born 1920).
Rohmer hired Almendros as cinematographer for La Collectionneuse (The Collector), a 1967 release that became the first feature film credit for Almendros's resume. It was followed by another Rohmer project, Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud's), released two years later and a hit on the international film festival circuit. Almendros was also the cinematographer for Rohmer's Le Genou de Claire (Claire's Knee), a 1970 release that scored similarly high marks with critics. At that time, Almendros spoke with Vincent Canby of the New York Times, telling the journalist that he preferred working with Rohmer and other visionaries who shared the same views about the art of filmmaking. "When I started, I found that my job consisted principally in de-lighting sets, that is, removing all the fake, conventional movie lighting that had been set up by lighting technicians," he recalled. "They were old-fashioned. They believed in a very glossy kind of photography, that faces should never been in shadow, that there should always be a lot of backlighting, with no shadows in the sets anywhere."
Almendros worked with several other directors of the French New Wave as they progressed to more mainstream, but nonetheless impressive, projects. His cinematography for Truffaut began in 1969 with L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child), and included L'Histoire d'Adèle H. (The Story of Adèle H.), a 1975 period piece that starred Isabelle Adjani, L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women), a 1977 comedy about a womanizer that was later remade in Hollywood, and Le Dernier Métro, (The Last Metro), a World War II drama that starred Catherine Deneuve. This movie won a slew of awards at the 1981 Césars, French cinema's equivalent of the Academy Awards, including that of Best Cinematographer for Almendros.
Almendros had already won an Academy Award statuette by this time for Days of Heaven, a 1978 drama set in the Texas Panhandle as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth. Directed by a maverick young filmmaker named Terrence Malick, the movie starred Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard in a romantic triangle tied to a real estate scam. Many years later, a Times of London contributor asserted that Almendros's "nakedly realistic treatment of the endless vistas of wheatfields, where young immigrants seek a new life after leaving Chicago in the early years of the century, created a vividly realised atmosphere, which more than compensated for the sometimes too-symbolic intentions of the script."
Shot Oscar-Winning Hollywood Projects
Days of Heaven began a productive period in Almendros's career, one which kept him moving around the world working for various directors. His next major job was for director Robert Benton on the multiple Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer. The 1979 drama, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a divorcing Manhattan couple battling over legal custody of their child, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best cinematography, but Almendros missed out that year. The film won the Best Picture award, however, with Canby describing it as "densely packed with … beautifully observed detail." Canby went on to praise Almendros as "gifted," concluding that "the Manhattan he shows us is familiar enough but we see a lot more than a series of pretty surfaces."
Almendros would work with Benton again on several other films, and also had a productive working relationship with Barbet Schroeder, who served as producer of some of the earliest New Wave movies and went on to a career as director of several major Hollywood films. Other notable projects for Almendros over the years included Goin' South, a 1977 Western that starred and was directed by Jack Nicholson; The Blue Lagoon, an ill-fated 1980 movie that featured Brooke Shields, a major teen star at the time; and Sophie's Choice, the 1982 adaptation of a William Styron novel that won Streep her first Oscar for a lead role.
Almendros recounted these and dozens of other experiences in a book that appeared in English translation in 1984 as A Man With a Camera. Part memoir, part textbook, the tome featured Almendros's behind-the-scenes tales of classics and box-office duds alike, and became standard reading for graduate film students for its eloquent writing on technical issues. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Gerald Mast commended the author for explaining to readers the reasons behind "the power of the most basic element of the cinema—light—essential for both film making and projection but so often taken for granted."
Chronicled Cuban Crimes
Almendros finally returned to directing his own films in 1984 with Mauvaise conduite (Improper Conduct), a documentary about life in Castro's Cuba that was released in the United States as Improper Conduct. He served as codirector with Orlando Jimenez-Leal, a Cuban émigré filmmaker, and it would be Almendros's first full-length documentary film as a director. The movie's title is taken from the charges leveled against certain segments of the Cuban population whose personal beliefs put them at odds with the goals of the 1959 revolution. These included gay men and Jehovah's Witnesses, and a critique of the film by John Simon in the National Review hinted that Almendros's reason for leaving Cuba back in 1961 may have been linked to more than just the year's top ten films list—Simon described Almendros as "the great cinematographer … whose concern with homosexuality is not just academic." Giving Improper Conduct high marks, Simon wrote approvingly of the way it used "official Cuban footage, especially a long interview in which Castro discourses on the perfect freedom and justice of his state, which would have seemed specious even out of context, but which here becomes a masterpiece of the preposterous and demonstrates the almost physical, aesthetic ugliness of mendacity even beyond its moral canker."
In 1988 Almendros made his second documentary film about Cuba, Nadie escuchaba (Nobody Listened). Again, he collaborated with another Cuban exile, this time journalist Jorge Ulla, and the film featured the first-person accounts of dissidents who had managed to flee Cuba after stints in prison where many had survived bestial conditions and even torture. "Making no attempt to give equal time to pro-Castro partisans, the filmmakers allow the sheer weight of testimony here to speak for itself," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. "'Nobody Listened' is an urgent and painful litany, measured in its tone but passionately intent on making its point." Almendros confessed that he had to finance Nobody Listened on his own, and nearly went broke doing so. Yet as he explained to another New York Times writer, Lawrence Van Gelder, "I've made 47 movies and I've got several awards, and there's a moment when you think you owe something to society. I have access to camera and film, and I know how. The Cuban case is too scandalous not to talk about."
The 1991 film from Robert Benton, Billy Bathgate, was Almendros's last job as a cinematographer. He died of lymphoma on March 4, 1992, in New York City.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, 4th edition, St. James Press, 2000.
National Review, September 7, 1984.
New York Times, September 24, 1969; February 22, 1971; February 28, 1971; December 19, 1979; August 10, 1980; September 30, 1984; December 2, 1988.
Sunday Times (London, England), August 11, 1985.
Times (London, England), May 20, 1976; March 6, 1992.