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Oswald Morris, award-winning British cinematographer, dies at 98

The Los Angeles Times
| Saturday, November 8, 2014 12:01 a.m

Oswald Morris, a renowned British cinematographer who won an Academy Award for the 1971 musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and who was known for his innovative color work on films such as “Moulin Rouge,” has died. He was 98.

Morris died Monday at his home in Fontmell Magna, a village in Dorset, England, according to the British Society of Cinematographers. No cause was given.

In a 50-year career that began as a clapper boy at Wembley Studios as a teenager in the 1930s, Morris worked his way up to cinematographer in 1949 on director Ronald Neame’s “Golden Salamander.”

Known as Ossie, he was the director of photography on 58 movies with directors including John Huston, Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick, Carol Reed, Tony Richardson, Jack Clayton, J. Lee Thompson, Franco Zeffirelli and Herbert Ross.

Among his films: “The Key,” “Look Back in Anger,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “Lolita,” “The Hill,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Scrooge,” “Sleuth,” “Equus,” “The Wiz,” “The Great Muppet Caper” and “The Dark Crystal.”

Morris also was director of photography on eight films with Huston, including “Moulin Rouge,” “Beat the Devil,” “Moby Dick,” “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” and “The Man Who Would Be King.”

“Ossie Morris is a true artist who has compiled a remarkably diverse and enduring body of work,” American Society of Cinematographers President Victor Kemper said in announcing that the then-84-year-old Morris would receive ASC’s International Achievement Award in 2000.

“The best directors sought him out for some of their most important films,” Kemper said, “and he never disappointed them.”

In addition to winning an Oscar for his work on director Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1972, Morris received Oscar nominations in 1969 for Reed’s “Oliver!” and in 1979 for Lumet’s “The Wiz.”

He also won three best cinematography awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for “The Pumpkin Eater,” “The Hill” and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”

Morris once described his Oscar-winning work on “Fiddler on the Roof” – he shot it through a silk stocking over the lens to create the sepia effect he wanted – as “a cameraman’s dream because it had everything a cameraman could wish for.”

“In the seasons we have winter with rain, winter with dull weather, winter with snow. We have dawns, sunrises, hot summer days, cold winter days, sunsets and nights,” he said. “Now I can’t think of anything, except possibly a storm, that one couldn’t have put in this film from a photographic point of view.”

Jewison, he said, “pushed me right to the limit, and I need to be pushed when I’m working.”

Morris faced a major challenge when he shot “Moulin Rouge,” Huston’s 1952 biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec: Huston wanted the movie to look as though the French artist had directed it.

In so doing, Morris raised the ire of Technicolor officials in London.

“’Moulin Rouge’ broke every rule in the book,” he told Daily Variety in 2000. “We used very strong, light-scattering filters on the camera, which had never been used before, and we also filmed every set full of smoke so that the actors always stood out from the background.”

Indeed, he told Britain’s Sunday Express in 2006: “The Technicolor people hated it. They did everything they could to get me off the picture. Everyone was against me, but John backed me all the way.”

Once the film was released and began receiving critical praise, Morris said, “The head of Technicolor in America wrote to Technicolor in London congratulating them on the wonderful colors in the film. No mention of me, but I suppose that’s just the way it goes.”

Morris titled his 2006 autobiography “Huston, We Have a Problem,” a playful reference to his work with Huston.

“It’s true,” Morris told Britain’s Daily Express in 2006. “I did used to go up and say, ‘John, we have a problem,’ and he would always say: ‘Well, kid,’ – he always called me kid – ‘what are you going to do about it?’ and I’d go and find a solution. We always came up with something in the end.”

Morris believed much of his success came from appreciating stars’ ego and insecurities, he said in the Sunday Express interview.

“I was very good at asking actresses if they had any hang-ups about their appearance,” he said. “Even if it’s a character part, everyone wants to look good. You have to keep people calm.”

Jennifer Jones, whom he had “the dubious pleasure of photographing on various films, would get terribly neurotic, especially if (her husband) David O. Selznick was producing. But I discovered she liked boiled sweets and I’d have a bag on hand so I could offer her one after a scene. It would change her completely.”

He had no difficulties working with the female star of director Jim Henson’s 1981 film “The Great Muppet Caper.”

“When I first worked with him, he said: ‘I think of Kermit (the frog) as my leading man and Miss Piggy as my leading lady. Will you photograph them like that?’ So I lit Miss Piggy just as if she was Greta Garbo or Sophia Loren.”

Morris was born Nov. 22, 1915, in Ruislip, a village outside London. Fascinated with movies and photography as a teenager, he landed an unpaid apprenticeship at Wembley Studios in 1932 when he was 16. He moved up from clapper boy to camera assistant two years later.

Morris resumed his career after serving as a Royal Air Force bomber pilot during World War II and was camera operator on films such as David Lean’s 1948 production of “Oliver Twist.”

In 1998, he was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to cinematography and the film industry.”

His brother, Reginald H. Morris, also became a cinematographer.

Morris’ first wife, Connie, died in 1963; his second wife, Lee, died in 2003.

He is survived by his children from his first marriage, daughters Christine and Gillian and son Roger.

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