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Oscar Profile #62: Boris Kaufman

Born August 24, 1906 in Byalistock, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Boris Kaufman was the third son of librarians who would become world-renown filmmakers. His oldest brother, Denis, working under the pseudonym of Dziga Vertov, was the acclaimed documentary director whose most famous film was 1929’s The Man with the Movie Camera. Middle brother Mikhail was the cinematographer on that film.

The family, which had moved to Moscow at the outbreak of World War I, was separated at the end of the war. Denis and Mikhail decided to stay in Moscow, while their parents took the then 11 year-old Boris back to Poland. Ten years later he migrated to France. Although the brothers never met again after 1917, they stayed in touch via mail for the remainder of their lives. Boris, who was able to view his brothers’ films in Paris, credited Mikhail with teaching him to be a cinematographer through the mail.

It was in Paris that Boris met aspiring director Jean Vigo and became the cinematographer on all his films, imitating the work his brothers had done. With Vigo’s early death at 29 after the completion of 1934’s L’Atalante, Boris seemed to lose his way. Although he made several more films in France, only one of them, Abel Gance’s 1935 fil,m, Lucrezia Bogria, could be called a success. Boris drifted along until the outbreak of World War II. After serving with the French Army in the Battle of France he migrated to Canada in 1942 and eventually made his way to the U.S. Unable to work on feature films due to the lack of a guild membership, he sustained himself on documentaries until Elia Kazan chose him as his cinematographer on 1954’s On the Waterfront.

Kazan gets a lot of heat for his naming names during the Hollywood witch hunts, and justifiably so, but only someone of Kazan’s then impeccable anti-Communist stance could have gotten Boris Kaufman, under constant surveillance as the brother of two prominent Soviet filmmakers, into the guild and onto his film. Kaufman’s flawless documentary inspired camerawork won him a much deserved Oscar for his first Hollywood film.

That same year he shot the controversial nudist film, The Garden of Eden, which resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the majority held that the film was not obscene or indecent, and that nudity was not itself obscene.

For Kazan, Kaufman also shot 1957’s Baby Doll, for which he won a second Oscar nomination, and 1961’s Splendor in the Grass. He had an even longer lasting relationship with Sidney Lumet for whom he shot 1957’s 12 Angry Men; 1959’s The Fugitive Kind; 1962’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and 1964’s The Pawnbroker. His last film was Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon in 1970, after which he retired.

Denis Kaufman AKA Dziga Vertov died in Moscow in February, 1954 at 58. Mikhail Kaufman died in Moscow in March, 1980 at 82. Boris Kaufman died in New York three months later at 71.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

L’ATALANTE (1934), directed by Jean Vigo

The culmination of the collaboration between French director Jean Vigo and Polish born Kaufman is a stunning visual masterwork. Their previous film, Zero for conduct inspired both Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson’s If…, but this lyrical romance set on board a ship is the better film so if you see only one Vigo film, this is the one you should see. Michel Simon’s portrayal of the ship’s second mate is one of the great character performances of its era.

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), directed by Elia Kazan

Kazan wanted the neorealist look of the post-war Italian films but he reached further back into film history and chose Vigo’s partner to provide the documentary style he was looking for. The realistic look of Kaufman’s cinematography matches the harsh reality of the drama being played out on the streets and in the shipyards. Kaufman proved a master at capturing scenes in confined spaces as well as the famed taxicab scene with Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger illustrates.

12 ANGRY MEN (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet

From the confined space of the taxicab in On the Waterfront to the confined space of the jury room in 12 Angry Men Kaufman’s cinematography here gives Lumet what he was looking for, a concentration on the actors bringing more of an immediacy of the drama than was evident in the earlier TV version directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with an emphasis on the big picture rather than the faces of the actors. Lumet and Kaufman collaborated two years later on the ludicrous The Fugitive Kind, the only virtue of which is Kaufman’s stunning use of light and shadow on the faces of Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani in an overbearing film of an overheated Tennessee Williams play.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962) , directed by Sidney Lumet

Lumet, having been an actor himself, usually stood back and allowed his actors, the good ones anyway, to find their own voices, but what makes this version of Eugene O’Neill’s work so unique is that without changing a single word of dialogue he changes the focus from the father in the play hereby played by ralph Richardson, to the mother hereby played by Katharine Hepburn. It’s all done with the camera, Kaufman’s camera. All four stars, including Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell shine, but Hepburn soars and Kaufman captures every tingling moment of her performance.

ALL THE WAY HOME (1963) , directed by Alex Segal

Subsequent TV versions of Tad Mosel’s play from James Agee’s novel are better known. The 1971 version starred Joanne Woodward and the 1981 version Sally Field and they’re both good, but this earlier screen version with a luminous performance from Jean Simmons is still the best. Ironically it’s a rare big screen film from a director best known for his TV work. What makes it special are the performances of Simmons and Aline MacMahon and the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Boris Kaufman. The entire film is excellently shot but once again Kaufman’s best work is in the capture of faces in close-up. MacMahon, whose last theatrical film this was, has a moment near the end of the film that Simmons has to read to be able to know what to do to bring closure to her son’s grieving for his lost father and her own ability to let the kid breathe on his own. It’s a great moment in which MacMahon doesn’t utter a word, just conveys with that look a depth of emotion that could only be conveyed by a great actress working in concert with a great cinematographer.

BORIS KAUFMAN AND OSCAR

  • On the Waterfront (1954) – Oscar
  • Baby Doll (1957)
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