Haskell Wexler gave his son Mark a priceless gift. When Mark decided he wanted to make a documentary about his renowned cinematographer father, a two-time Oscar winner, Haskell wisely decided not to make it easy, with the result that "Tell Them Who You Are" is a remarkable work -- lively, painful, humorous, deeply revealing of both father and son -- that is worthy of one of Hollywood's finest directors of photography.
"What I do for a living isn't me," declares Haskell, who is adamant about his son not making a standard documentary surveying his career through clips and obligatory glowing remarks from his colleagues. After all, his place in the cinema pantheon is secure -- as the cinematographer of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "America, America," "In the Heat of the Night," "Coming Home," "Bound for Glory," "American Graffiti" and many others plus his numerous documentaries dealing with the Vietnam War and social justice, not to mention his direction of the explosive feature "Medium Cool," about a TV cameraman caught up in the riots that broke out in the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. On the other hand, one senses that for Haskell as much as for Mark making this picture was a way of communicating, something that clearly has heretofore eluded them.
Now 83 but as lean, vigorous and stylish as ever, Haskell Wexler is a witty, outspokenly blunt man with an unabashedly healthy ego. It's not surprising that Mark found him intimidating as a father. The film's title refers to a remark that Haskell apparently frequently made to Mark as a boy, that he should identify himself as Haskell Wexler's son. This film is a tribute to a father from a son and the son's assertion of his own identity, and happily "Tell Them Who You Are" succeeds on both counts.
Haskell Wexler grew up a rich kid in the Chicago area while most of the country was struggling to survive the Depression, but his well-known activist streak surfaced early: At 17 he organized a strike against his father's electronics factory. During World War II his ship was torpedoed, and Wexler, a Merchant Marine, was marooned with nine other men on a lifeboat for 10 days before being rescued. His father subsequently would spend -- and lose -- $1 million dollars providing Haskell with his own mini-studio in support of his initial attempts to become a documentary filmmaker.
Haskell insists that for the film he and Mark do things together, and this includes going to San Francisco for an antiwar demonstration. Mark is firm about making a personal rather than political film, but his father is equally adamant that political activism is a crucial part of who he is. In a San Francisco hotel, resting after the demonstration, Haskell tells Mark he wants him to film him because he has an important statement to make, but the two clash over the son's wish to position his father against a sweeping view of the city to the extent that Mark, executing a filmmaker's privilege, edits out this statement so important to Haskell.
(Mark has revealing moments of his own. Having made a National Geographic documentary on Air Force One, for which he met Presidents Ford, Clinton and the current President Bush, Mark decides not to follow his father inside the home of wealthy liberal activist Stanley Sheinbaum for a political gathering for fear of spoiling his clearance for an upcoming Smithsonian documentary with Bush.)
Of course, there are colleagues who speak admiringly of the elder Wexler's talents, but others reveal how difficult Wexler could be to work with. Norman Jewison affectionately recalls him as "a pain in the ass," and the late Elia Kazan pronounces him "a damn good cinematographer, but I would never work with him again." The nadir for Wexler occurred when he was replaced on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
"It was the worst experience of my life," says producer Michael Douglas, who admits Wexler reminded him of his father, Kirk, in his formidability. Director Milos Forman declares that Wexler undermined him with his actors, but to this day Wexler is convinced Forman was pressured to let him go by the FBI for his political activities.
Gradually but steadily, Mark works toward the personal. The pivotal sequence occurs when the Wexlers visit Jane Fonda, with whom Haskell went to Vietnam to make "Introduction to the Enemy" in 1974 and whom he later photographed in "Coming Home."
Roughly halfway in age between father and son, Fonda is ideally positioned to observe that for their fathers' generations, "intimacy was not their gift" but "nothing is more important than to make peace before it's too late." Fonda's remarks are punctuated by observations from her ex-husband Tom Hayden about how his activism estranged him from his Marine father.