Oscar Profile #440: William A. Fraker

Born September 29, 1923 in Los Angeles, California, William A. Fraker III was the son of William A. Fraker, Jr., Department Head of Still Photography at Columbia, and his Mexican born wife who fled Mazatlan, Mexico with her mother and sister on a mule during Mexico’s revolution in 1910. Both parents died of influenza in 1934. He was raised by his fearless Mexican grandmother, then a photographer for Monroe Studios in downtown Los Angeles. She instructed him in the art of photography as she had his father.

Fraker served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and attended USC under the G.I. Bill, graduating with a degree in Cinema. He was admitted into the camera union in 1954 and worked extensively in TV from 1956-1964, predominantly on the series, The Lone Ranger, The Outer Limits and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. During this period, he worked as cinematographer for the Hawaiian sequences of 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea.

He married wife Denise, born in 1941, in 1959. Their son, William A. Fraker IV aka William A. Fraker, Jr., was born in 1960.

After uncredited work behind the camera on 1965’s Morituri and 1966’s The Professionals, Fraker entered the big time with six back-to-back major credits as cinematographer on 1967’s Games, The Fox and The President’s Analyst, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and Bullitt, and 1969’s Paint Your Wagon.

Fraker’s prominence in the 1970s continued with 1973’s The Day of the Dolphin, 1975’s Rancho Deluxe, followed by three films for which he is credited with “additional photography”, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1976’s Lipstick and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He then earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography three years in succession for 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, 1978’s Heaven Can Wait and 1979’s 1941. He also received a second Oscar nomination for the latter for Best Visual Effects.

Additional Oscar nominations came Fraker’s way for Best Cinematography for 1983’s WarGames and 1985’s Murphy’s Romance. His other 1980s films included The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Baby Boom and An Innocent Man. The 1990s brought such diverse films as The Freshman, Honeymoon in Vegas, Tombstone and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Fraker’s career continued into the new millennium with 2000’s Rules of Engagement, 2001’s Town & Country and 2002’s Waking Up in Reno, which would be his last film. A member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) since 1968, he served as President from 1979 to 1980, 1984 to 1985, and 1991 to 1992. Never nominated for a competitive award from them, they finally gave him an honorary award toward the end of his career in 2000.

William A. Fraker died of cancer on May 31, 2010 at 86. His wife Denise survives him. Their son, who had followed him into the business as an assistant cameraman, predeceased him in 1992.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

BULLITT (1968), directed by Peter Yates

Fraker was already being heralded as one of the year’s outstanding cinematographers for his work on the New York lensed Rosemary’s Baby, when he blew audiences away with his derring-do on this San Francisco based police thriller starring Steve McQueen at the height of his prominence. Being the perfectionist that he was, who would go to great lengths to get the shot he wanted, he shot chase-scene footage while strapped to the front of a Mustang going 100 mph. Ignored by both the American Society of Cinematographers and Oscar, he did receive a BAFTA nomination for his extraordinary accomplishment.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), directed by Milos Forman

The 1975 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Screenplay, the film was nominated for four others including Best Cinematography for which Fraker was credited with “additional photography”. That wasn’t enough to get him included on Oscar ballots with Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler, but it was enough to get him included on BAFTA ballots with his co-cinematographers. He would go on to earn a third BAFTA nod for his visual effects on 1983’s WarGames but would ironically not receive a matching BAFTA nod for any of his six Oscar nods.

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977), directed by Richard Brooks

Fraker had worked uncredited for director Brooks behind the camera on 1966’s The Professionals for which Brooks earned an Oscar nod as Best Director. This time around, Fraker would be nominated, but Brooks wouldn’t for one the most controversial films of its time. The intense sex-fueled murder plot required extremely delicate shots which Fraker provided, but unfortunately the overall look of the film was disappointing as the film based on a real-life NYC murder had to make do with an unnamed city that was an amalgam of Los Angeles and San Francisco that fooled no one. It contains Diane Keaton’s arguably greatest performance.

MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985), directed by Martin Ritt

Fraker earned the last of his six Oscar nominations for this fondly rendered May-December romance between 33-year-old Sally Field and won’t-say-how-old-he-is until the last line of the film, James Garner. She’s a divorcée with a 12-year-old son, he’s a local store owner in the town she relocates to. Both stars are at their peak, both earning Golden Globe nominations for their deft portrayals. Garner would also earn an Oscar nomination, the only one in his long career, the year after Feld won her second for Places in the Heart. He and Fraker were the film’s only Oscar nominees.

BABY BOOM (1989), directed by Charles Shyer

Similar in theme to Murphy’s Romance, this bucolic film, gorgeously lensed by Fraker in New York and Los Angeles, but mostly in rural Vermont, features another single woman with child, played by another Oscar winning actress, who finds an unexpected romance with a local man in the town to which she has relocated. In this case, the woman is played by Diane Keaton, who Fraker previously lensed in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, as a New York yuppie who inherits a baby from a distant cousin. The man is a veterinarian and all-around renaissance man, played by Sam Shepard.

WILLIAM A. FRAKER AND OSCAR

  • Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) – nominated – Best Cinematography
  • Heaven Can Wait (1978) – nominated – Best Cinematography
  • 1941 (1979) – nominated – Best Cinematography
  • 1941 (1979) – nominated – Best Visual Effects
  • WarGames (1983) – nominated – Best Cinematography
  • Murphy’s Romance (1985) – nominated – Best Cinematography

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