Jack Cardiff: “The Man Who Made Women Look Beautiful”

Marilyn Monroe by Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff, one-time silent actor, and long-time painterly, Academy Award-winning cinematographer, is one of the few members of his trade to have secured lasting recognition. Known colloquially as “the man who made women look beautiful”, he was the first cameraman chosen by Technicolor to work in colour photography, and produced a series of phosphorescent films whorled with shadows.

Drawing inspiration from Rembrandt, his debut colour movie was the 1937 Wings of the Morning, starring Henry Fonda. In 1947, contrasting of shades of red and green in Black Narcissus (a sexually strained film about a group of Anglican nuns in the Himalayas), he was inspired by Van Gogh. The Red Shoes, out the following year, was even bolder in its visual experimentations: in one particularly deft piece of camerawork, a newspaper morphs seamlessly into a dancing man.

Behind his vivid, sometimes hallucinogenic, use of light and colour, Cardiff was very meticulous man, and kept a precise catalogue of notes on the stars he worked with. “Watch Lollo’s [Gina Lollobrigida] cheeks, and those lips. A false light and they will film badly,” he wrote. “Watch Ava’s nose. It has a slight twist and a scar line.”

As the Hampstead Theatre raises its curtain on Prism, a play based on Cardiff’s life, Mason Cardiff takes Vanity Fair behind the scenes of some of the most iconic moments in his father’s career, starting with Marilyn Monroe who, arriving in London to shoot The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier in 1956, demanded to work with Cardiff and, signing him up, said: “He’s the best cameraman in the world, and I’ve got him.”

Marilyn Monroe (featured image)

“This picture was Arthur Miller’s favourite,” says Cardiff. “It was taken while Dad was shooting Prince and the Showgirl. Marilyn arranged to meet Dad at Miller’s house for the photoshoot. Arriving at eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, Miller told him she was still asleep and was invited in for breakfast. Marilyn came downstairs nine hours later looking like ‘a radiantly beautiful child’.

“When Dad asked her to sign it, she wrote, ‘My dearest Jack, if I could only be the way you’ve created me. I love you.’”

Christopher-Walken-&-Jack-Cardiff.-Jack-Cardiff.archive.-Credit---Courtesty-of-the-Jack-Cardiff-estate

Christopher Walken

“This was taken on a hard-bitten war film from the book by Frederick Forsyth, called The Dogs of War. Filming in the harsh corners of Belize and New York, I remember Christopher being a very unassuming and genuine man; but that stare of his could really frighten the life out of you.”

Audrey-Hepburn.-Photo-by-Jack-Cardiff.-Courtesy-of-the-Regan-gallery.

Audrey Hepburn

“This has always been my favourite picture of Audrey. Dad took it while he was filming War and Peace. This is a certain style of photography called chiaroscuro, which used to fascinate me as a kid. Behind her, to the left, is light. Then dark on one half of her face, light on the other and then dark to her right.”

Humphrey-Bogart-&-Jack-Cardiff.-JackCardiff.archive.-Credit---Courtesty-of-the-Jack-Cardiff-estate

Humphrey Bogart  

“When Dad first met Bogart on The African Queen, he said Bogart approached him like a gangster appraising someone before drawing his gun. He spoke in a gritty snarl. ‘Listen Jack—you see my face. It’s got a lot of lines and wrinkles on it. I’ve been cultivating them for years, and I like them. So don’t try and light them out and make me look like a goddam sissy.’

“They became great friends.”

Marlene-Dietrich.-Photo-by-Jack-Cardiff.-Courtesy-of-the-Regan-gallery

Marlene Dietrich

“Dad was an operator for the 1937 film, A Knight Without Armour. He remembers, during the scene, looking up and seeing a huge amount of crew-members packed up in the spot-rails, all inventing jobs so they could watch the filming. Dad had heard later that pictures being shot on all the other stages were suddenly bereft of technicians.”

Prism (September 6-October 14); The Hampstead Theatre, Eton Ave, London NW3 3EU (020 7722 9301); @Hamps_Theatre

More like this:

The A-List Interview: Jack O’Connell

Centre Stage: Carmen dell’Orifice

What to read right now: Summer 2017

Friends on Film: Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire

Follow Vanity Fair UK on Twitter and Instagram

See more on FILM & CULTURE