Bob Willoughby, the man considered by many to be the greatest set photographer of all time, died Friday at his home in Vence, France. He was 82.
It’s difficult not to love Willoughby’s work. He shot the most beautiful people, his pictures are graphically bold and often full of action, and they give us regular people privileged access into the private, behind the scenes moments of our favorite movies. But what am I saying? That’s what all set photographers do.
What makes Willoughby’s work stand up taller than the rest, is that it contains a true, open-eyed love for the process of making movies. One look at any of his pictures, and you’ll see he saw the stars, directors, and technicians, the way we want to see them, with curiosity, the enthusiasm of true fans, and, unlike the classical Hollywood portraits of Hurrell, only the slightest touch of idealism.
Today, we like to see movie people cut down to size. And why shouldn’t we? Many of them are just too rich and too happy (or so they seem) for us to want to let them stay that way. But Willoughby’s work forsakes that impulse, and reminds us of all that was wonderful – and indeed still may be wonderful – about the picture industry. And the way Willoughby saw it, it was truly an industry – of stunning people out there doing stunning work.
I’m happy to say I had the good fortune to speak with Willoughby over the last year. Our communication began when I contacted him out of the blue to see if I could get the rights to a photo of his which I wanted to use for the cover of my book about Blake Edwards. Though he owed me no favors, he wanted to give it to me for a very, very low price. He didn’t have to; I was willing to pay pull price (for this shot, attached below, you would have too), but he insisted.
And when I told him I was working on a book about his muse, Audrey Hepburn, he assured me that everything they ever said about her was true. She was the loveliest person in pictures, perhaps the loveliest person he had ever met. The way he said it, with such tender reverence, it was impossible not to believe him.
So here’s to Bob Willoughby, who loved making movies. The proof is in the pictures.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966)
Blake Edwards and Natalie Wood, The Great Race (1965)
Judy Garland and George Cukor, A Star is Born (1954)
Dustin Hoffman and script supervisor Meta Rebner, The Graduate (1967)