Owen Roizman received two honors from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) this spring. First, he was elected president of the 78-year-old Hollywood organization, which includes 205 active members. Then, Roizman received the 1997 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, which acknowledges a career of exceptional work. Though the cinematographer has been nominated for five Academy Awards, he considers the ASC's recognition to be the highest commendation possible.
"It's about as prestigious an award as you can get, because it's given by your peers," says Roizman, who has photographed about two dozen features since rising to prominence with The French Connection, in 1971. "You figure they are people who understand what you do and appreciate what you've done. Voting for the Oscars is done by everybody in the academy. With all due respect, a lot of them don't really appreciate or understand what good cinematography is, any more than I would in terms of costume design, for example. Plus, the ASC Award is for a body of work and not just an individual picture; it's thrilling."
His father, Sol Roizman, was a newsreel cameraman, but as a boy growing up in Brooklyn, the future DP was much more interested in baseball. "I wanted to be a professional baseball player, a pitcher, but that wasn't in the cards for me," says Roizman. First, he was sidelined by polio, and then by an arm injury in his senior year of high school. "Even with my exposure to it, film wasn't a passion I had as a youngster at all. After college, I sort of gravitated into the industry by default."
Even so, he took to it like a natural. He worked as an assistant cameraman, and then a camera operator, for MPO, one of the top TV commercial companies in New York. By the time he was 30, Roizman was a staff cinematographer, and in 1970, he made his feature debut on a never-released film called Stop. The DP's work attracted the attention of director William Friedkin, who was readying a gritty New York police thriller called The French Connection.
"Everything he'd seen of mine was high-key and pretty-looking, and when he asked me if I could do something realistic like that, my answer was, 'Why not?' " Roizman recalls. Nevertheless, he had a few tricks to learn. "I had never really shot much night exterior, and I didn't have a lot of experience shooting running car footage." The French Connection, of course, had substantial quantities of both. "So rather than spend the time on the set playing around with where I wanted to put the lights, I went in the garage and blacked out the windows, had my wife sit in the car, and played around with different angles and lights and intensities to see what kinds of looks I could get. I rehearsed what I was going to do."
It paid off: The French Connection, which was a big hit, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and garnered Roizman his first nomination. Credits that followed include Play It Again, Sam; The Heartbreak Kid; Friedkin's The Exorcist; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; The Stepford Wives; and The Return of a Man Called Horse. With 1975's Three Days of the Condor, the DP began a collaboration with director Sydney Pollack, extending to Network, Absence of Malice, and Tootsie, among other movies.
All the while, Roizman kept his hand in commercials, both directing and shooting. In 1985, he took a self-imposed hiatus from feature work to be with his family, and opened his own commercial production company. Five years later he was back, adding Havana, The Addams Family, and Wyatt Earp to his resume.
Now, Roizman says, "I'm everything but officially retired. The reason I took on the ASC presidency is because I had already made a decision to curtail my feature work. It's a complicated position, because the society was formed to further the art of cinematography and provide some means of camaraderie for cinematographers. At the same time, we publish a magazine, American Cinematographer, and several books, so we have a small business."
Among the ASC's recent accomplishments, begun under former president Victor Kemper's tenure, was ensuring that Advanced Television (ATV) standards adopted by the Federal Communications Commission enable films to be shown in their original aspect ratios. One of Roizman's goals as president is to "enhance the awareness of the role that the cinematographer has in the production of a motion picture. It's demeaning to be considered below the line, or one of the technical credits. We're artists first and technicians second. The cinematographer is one of the authors, along with the writer and director: He is the author of light."
Roizman has brought that outlook to his forays into teaching, both at the American Film Institute and UCLA's graduate cinematography program. "I wouldn't have the patience to teach a beginning class in cinematography, but with students that have learned quite a bit and want to go a little further, it's fun to share my experiences." Whether in that capacity or his role as ASC president, the DP finds it rewarding to give something back to an industry that has treated him better than some.
"My father said it was a very tough business, and he was worried that I might not make it," Roizman says. "I was very lucky--I got a steady job early on, and I have never been without work the whole time I've been in the business. It's not like that for the majority of people. Unfortunately, my father didn't live to see my success, which is too bad, because he would have been real happy--and surprised."