Hungarian-born Hollywood cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is dead at 85

His Russian-born business partner Yuri Neyman announced that Vilmos Zsigmond died on New Year’s Day. He was 85. Zsigmond’s wife is writer Susan Roether of Big Sur, California.

Zsigmond became Hollywood’s star cinematographer after winning an Oscar for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1978. He also received Oscar nominations for “The Deer Hunter” (1979), “The River” (1984) and the “The Black Dahlia” (2006).

Zsigmond was born in Hungary in 1930, he graduated from the Budapest Film School in 1955 and left the country during the 1956 revolution. With his lifelong friend and fellow cinematographer, László Kovács, he smuggled out important footages of the Hungarian Revolution. Zsigmond made his way to California, where he first worked on low-budget horror and exploitation movies. His first break was his collaboration with legendary director Robert Altman on “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “The Long Goodbye.”

Vilmos Zsigmond behind the camera in the 1970s.

Vilmos Zsigmond behind the camera in the 1970s.

The real breakthrough in his career came after meeting director Steven Spielberg. They had a volatile relationship while filming “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” which was nominated for seven Oscars in 1978. Zsigmond won for his revolutionary and creative cinematography; but Spielberg was denied the Oscar for Best Director. The movie was a runaway success but the relationship with Spielberg had soured, and Zsigmond never worked with him again.

He also made movies with Woody Allen, Michael Cimino, Marty Scorsese, Brian de Palma and George Miller. In a Rolling Stone interview he said that “a cinematographer can only be as good as the director” and in 1992 Zsigmond himself tried his hand at directing. His directorial debut “The Long Shadow,” starring Michael York and Liv Ullman, was a flop. He was successful in shooting television specials, like “Stalin,” starring Robert Duvall which won an American Society of Cinematographers award. He also worked with Hungarian-American actor-director Endre Hules in 2011; he shot “The Maiden Danced to Death.”

Zsigmond was hardworking and busy during his entire career. He worked on films like “Sliver,” “The Crossing Guard” and “Intersection”; “Maverick” and “Assassins,” both for Richard Donner; “The Ghost and the Darkness”; and “Playing by Heart.” He even started a business venture with Yuri Neyman called Global Cinematography Institute to train cinematographers.

In his last years Zsigmond had contacts within Hungary’s right-wing circles. I never understood why he gave his name to a nationalist calendar project run by New York based right-wing activist Mr. Ákos Szilágyi and he even sponsored a promotional event with controversial journalist Mr. Zsolt Bayer. (A couple of months ago I contacted his office about this but never received an answer.)

In 2013 Vilmos Zsigmond shared the stage with Zsolt Bayer and Csaba Hende in Budapest.

In 2013 Vilmos Zsigmond shared the stage with Zsolt Bayer and Csaba Hende in Budapest.

He was a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and also received several lifetime achievement awards. In his brief heavily-accented Oscar acceptance speech he thanked the Unites States to give him a second life and praised his great Hungarian film teachers – Mr. György Illés, Mr. Béla Bolykovszki and Mr. János (Jean) Badal. (For video footage of Mr. Zsigmond’s Oscar speech – click here.)

György Lázár

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  1. Pingback: Thank You, Vilmos

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