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.