Born September 8, 1906 in Covington, Kentucky, Robert Surtees was raised in Ohio. After graduating high school, he got a job as a photographer and re-toucher at a portrait studio in Cincinnati. He moved to California in 1925 intending to go to college, but was offered a job as a camera assistant at Universal based on some of his published photography. In 1928 and 1929 he also worked abroad for UFA in Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland, returning to Hollywood in 1930. It wasn’t until 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Comedy that he would become a full-fledged camera operator. He later went to work for MGM where he became a director of photography (cinematographer) in 1943 and soon received his first of sixteen Oscar nominations for 1944’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
After his long apprenticeship, Surtees quickly established himself as one of Hollywood’s most distinguished cinematographers. His remaining 1940s input included such diverse works as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, A Date with Judy and Intruder in the Dust. 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines earned him his second Oscar nomination and first win. 1951’s Quo Vadis brought him his third nomination and 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful fourth nomination and second win.
Surtees earned his fifth Oscar nomination on loan-out to Fox for 1955’s Oklahoma!, but his work for MGM continued apace with the likes of Mogambo, Trial, Les Girls, Raintree County and Merry Andrew, ending the decade with his sixth nomination and third win for Ben-Hur. That might have been enough for some people, but not for Surtees who was just getting started. He still had ten Oscar nominations ahead of him!
The 1960s proved another highly successful decade for Surtees whose output included It Started in Naples, Cimarron, Mutiny on the Bounty (Oscar nomination no. 7), PT 109, Kisses for My President, The Satan Bug, The Collector, Doctor Dolittle (Oscar nomination no. 8), The Graduate (Oscar nomination no. 9), Sweet Charity and The Arrangement.
Past normal retirement age at the start of the 1970s, Surtees nevertheless had another prolific decade behind the camera, lensing such films as The Last Picture Show (Oscar nomination no. 10), Summer of ‘42 (Oscar nomination no. 11), The Cowboys, The Other, Lost Horizon, The Sting (Oscar nomination no. 12), The Hindenburg (Oscar nomination no. 13), A Star Is Born (Oscar nomination no. 14), The Turning Point (Oscar nomination no. 15), Bloodbrothers and Same Time, Next Year (Oscar nomination no. 16).
Surtees retired after receiving his 16th Oscar nomination at the age of 72. He died on January 5, 1985 at 78. He had been married to his widow, Maydell, since before he came to Hollywood. They had two daughters and two sons. His youngest son, Bruce Surtees (1937-2005), was also a renown cinematographer, who received his sole Oscar nomination for Lenny.
BEN-HUR (1959), directed by William Wyler
Surtees’ third Oscar in ten years on five nominations might have been enough for your average director of photography, but Surtees was far from average. Although he had a long apprenticeship as a camera operator before being allowed to call himself a cinematographer, that apprenticeship was with the best from Hal Mohr to Gregg Toland. Unlike many of his contemporaries who held a preference for either black-and-white or color, he was at home in both processes and all types of films from war movies to musicals to melodramas. His already distinguished career was far from over.
THE GRADUATE (1967), directed by Mike Nichols
Surtees loved to experiment with lighting. On The Graduate, he took innovation in yet another direction with his experimental use of the 500mm telephoto lens. Nichols’ Oscar as the year’s Best Director was in no small way helped by Surtees’ audacious camerawork, which is as important a part of the film as Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s writing, Simon & Garfunkel’s music and the performances of Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross and the rest of its sterling company of actors. Surtees was also nominated this year for his cinematography on Doctor Dolittle.
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Surtees’ Oscar nominated black-and-white cinematography on Bogdanovich’s dust-swept film is easily one of his greatest achievements. He was also nominated this year for his sun-drenched color cinematography on Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ‘42. Maybe Oscar voters had a tough time choosing between his two masterworks, giving the award instead to Oswald Morris for Fiddler on the Roof. This is the one that haunts, though. The photography is as unforgettable as the performances of Timothy Botttoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Sam Bottoms and the others.
THE STING (1973), directed by George Roy Hill
Hill’s jaunty caper film was a box-office bonanza that earned ten Oscar nominations and won seven including Best Picture and Director. Marvin Hamlisch’s unique ragtime infused score was one of the reasons for its success, as was David S. Ward’s screenplay, both of which were among the film’s Oscar haul. Surtees, though, had to be content with a nomination – his 12th – this time around, as did Robert Redford who received his only acting nomination thus far. Paul Newman, already a four-time acting nominee, had to sit this one out. Surtees’ other film this year was Lost Horizon on which his son Bruce was second unit director.
THE TURNING POINT (1977), directed by Herbert Ross
Surtees, at home in all movie genres, got to work on two with The Turning Point, music and melodrama. The music was the ballet, of which there were many photographic opportunities. The melodrama was supplied primary by the film’s two female stars, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, the highlight of which was one of the screen’s most legendary catfights. Eighteen years earlier, Surtees won one of the eleven Oscars awarded Ben-Hur. This time around, his was one of eleven nominations that went nowhere. Its record 11 nominations, 0 wins would be tied eight years later by The Color Purple.
ROBERT SURTEES AND OSCAR
- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
- King Solomon’s Mines (1950) – Oscar – Best Cinematography, Color
- Quo Vadis (1951) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
- The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) – Oscar – Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
- Oklahoma! (1955) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
- Ben-Hur (1951) – Oscar – Best Cinematography, Color
- Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) – nominated – Best Cinematography, Color
- Doctor Dolittle (1967) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- The Graduate (1967) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- The Last Picture Show (1971) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- Summer of ‘42 (1971) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- The Sting (1973) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- The Hindenburg (1967) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- A Star Is Born (1976) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- The Turning Point (1977) – nominated – Best Cinematography
- Same Time, Next Year (1978) – nominated – Best Cinematography