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Jack Cardiff tells Stuart Wavell how his
handling of the vanity and vulnerability
of Hollywood legends has won him an Oscar .
Shooting stars in their best light February 4 2001
Before shooting began on The African Queen, Humphrey Bogart laid it on the line. "Listen kid," he told the cameraman, "you see this face? It's taken me a good many years to get these lines. I don't want you to wash them out with lights."
The cameraman, an Englishman named Jack Cardiff, coolly appraised the star's ravaged features. "Yes, there's too much dissipation there," he murmured. "I couldn't do anything about it, anyway."
Cardiff smiles at the recollection. "Bogey was a great character, very friendly in an aggressive way. If you said 'Good morning' he'd say 'What's good about it?' He was putting his own money into the picture and became a bit like Captain Bligh."
At 86, the cinematographer has been chosen to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars in March. He will become the first technician to be so honoured and only the second Briton selected after Laurence Olivier received the award in 1978.
A dapper man with a Roman's face and perfect recall, he received the news with characteristic
modesty. "I thought it was a joke when they rang. A voice said, 'This is the academy and we are pleased to say we are going to award you an Oscar.' I felt like saying 'Oh, yeah'."
It is not his first gold statuette. He won an Oscar in 1947 for cinematography on Black Narcissus and was nominated for cinematography on War and Peace and Fanny, and for directing Sons and Lovers.
His long repertoire ranges from Michael Powell's The Red Shoes to Rambo and Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn. Throughout the film world, Cardiff is revered as the craftsman who set the parameters of Technicolor and used light with a painter's skill.
Something about his bedside manner appealed to the stars he worked with. He was a confidant of Marilyn Monroe, a friend of Marlene Dietrich and buddy to the likes of Errol Flynn, William Holden and Kirk Douglas.
Bogart's edict was diametrically opposite to those he was accustomed to receiving from some of the most beautiful women in the world, all aware that their professional lives were in his hands.
To show their looks to maximum effect, he devised a "sundial" technique. A light at 12 o'clock - directly overhead - could only be used on an actress with flawless features, such as Ingrid Bergman. "Bergman was foolproof. Hitchcock wanted her to look haggard in Under Capricorn, but she was such a beauty it was very difficult."
In theory, the light moved around the dial as an actress's age increased. Dietrich managed to defy the rule, thanks to a perfect bone structure and a trick of her own invention. "She put a white line down the centre of her nose and was the first to put white make-up under her lower eyelids, which must have been painful.
"The funny thing was that she had a full-length mirror put beside the camera, so she could study herself while being shot. Her co-star, Robert Donat, liked to tease her, so he ordered another mirror to watch himself in and fuss about with his clothes."
This irritating habit was shared by Faye Dunaway in The Wicked Lady. "She always carried a hand mirror round with her and worried me to death by constantly looking into it."
A light at one o'clock was right for the younger Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. He worked with Gardner on Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, after which she asked him to shoot The Barefoot Contessa. "Ava was easy to photograph. Even when she had been up until five in the morning and was on set again four hours later, she looked perfect.
"She didn't worry about how she looked. She never saw the rushes. But she was serious as an actress."
A three o'clock position threw light directly on more mature faces, such as Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson and Myna Loy.
Among this firmament, Cardiff believes Monroe was in a class of her own. He first met her and her new husband, Arthur Miller, at their mansion in Windsor Great Park before filming The Prince and the Showgirl, co-starring Olivier.Cardiff was drawn to her beauty and vulnerability. But life on the set was like a psychologist's dream. "Marilyn was a bit scared of the great Sir Laurence, whom she called 'Mr Sir'. And she was scared stiff of Larry's wife, Vivien Leigh, who was so bright and feeling very superior to Marilyn."
He dismisses accounts of Monroe being difficult, attributing her constant prevarications to a phobia about being stared at.
"Larry would say, 'Try to get her out of her dressing room.' I had lots of conversations with her. I have worked with some pretty tough stars like Ava, but Marilyn never said a nasty word about anyone. She was like a child. One day she said, 'You know, Jack, I've got this marvellous disguise.' She took out a wig that was pure orange. I said, 'Oh my God, people will see you 200 yards away.'
"Then she said, 'Jack, I'm worried stiff about my tummy. When you see it sticking out, call out to me.' I said, 'No, let's have a codeword. When I call out 'Tom', you know your tummy's out.' Well, Tom was the name of my gaffer, and he must have thought I was stark, staring mad because he kept running over."
Cardiff handled tyrants by refusing to show them deference. The director Henry Hathaway, apt to fire people for the slightest offence, was infuriated by the sight of English crew drinking tea. "He would say, 'Goddamned tea-drinking sons of bitches.' He put up a note saying, 'In future the crew will drink tea standing up.'
"I said, 'Henry, you've blown it. They may not have liked you, but now you've lost their respect. You can't expect English people to stand up drinking tea'." Hathaway tore down the note.
Sylvester Stallone, virtually in charge of making Rambo, also learnt his lesson. "One day when I was setting up he said, 'I think the key light ought to go a little higher.' I ignored him. But later I got him to one side and said, 'Sly, don't ever tell me where to put the lights.' He said, 'I'm sorry. I'm out of line, I'm out of line'."