The 90th Academy Awards was an evening of firsts in many categories. Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele became the first black screenwriter ever to take home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Guillermo del Toro won Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, his first ever nominations in both categories. Robert Lopez, with his win for Best Original Song (for "Remember Me" from Coco), became the first person in history to achieve a double EGOT (that's at least two Emmys, Golden Globes, Oscars, and Tony Awards). Allison Janney, an actress who's been collecting television awards for years (she has seven Emmys), won her first Oscar for I, Tonya. And though he didn't win, longtime genre favorite Christopher Nolan finally got to hear his name called in the Best Director category for his work on Dunkirk.
For many cinephiles, though, another first was particularly worthy of celebration: The great Roger Deakins finally took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and it only took him 14 tries. Deakins' victory, for his work on Blade Runner 2049, came 35 years after his first feature film as a director of photography, and nearly 25 years after his first Oscar nomination, for The Shawshank Redemption. Deakins may not be a household name, and he's not known for working in any specific genre. He is, however, arguably our greatest living cinematographer, and this win was long overdue.
Deakins' interest in art began with painting, but during his college years he discovered a talent for photography and ultimately began working as a camerman for various documentary productions. In the early 1980s, he shifted from documentaries to fiction films, working as a director of photography for director Michael Radford. Radford's adaptation of George Orwell's seminal dystopian novel 1984 was Deakins' second feature film as a cinematographer. Other early projects included Sid and Nancy (1986) and Stormy Monday (1988).
By the early '90s Deakins had moved from U.K. cinema to Hollywood, and in 1991 he began the longest and most famous collaboration of his career when he served as director of photography on Barton Fink, the fourth film from writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and helped establish Deakins as a major talent in his field. He's since made 12 films with the Coens, and they've earned him five of his 14 Oscar nods.
In 1994 Deakins hit yet another level of acclaim with The Shawshank Redemption, which included his first Oscar nod and his first award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography from the American Society of Cinematographers. That organization has recognized Deakins as one of their greatest talents ever since, giving him four awards (including one for Blade Runner 2049) over the course of a whopping 15 nominations. Shawshank is a movie virtually everyone has seen at some point, thanks to endless word-of-mouth acclaim and ubiquitous play on various cable stations. It's so well-worn and well-loved because of great performances, great direction, and great writing, but also because of Deakins' warm, nostalgic camera work. As it wanders through that prison, his lens keeps finding glimmers of hope, and it drives the movie through every emotional high.
In the years since Shawshank Deakins has produced a seemingly endless stream of acclaimed work. Over the course of the last three decades he has proven to be both incredibly prolific (he was credited on at least one film every year between 2007 and 2017, and three films each in 2007 and 2008) and incredibly versatile. The Coens remain his most frequent collaborators, but he's also received Oscar nominations for work with Martin Scorsese (Kundun), Stephen Daldry (The Reader), Sam Mendes (Skyfall), and most recently Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049). His talents seem endlessly adaptable, capable of capturing the bleak beauty of a winter landscape (Fargo), the unnerving chiaroscuro of film noir (The Man Who Wasn't There), or the sexy reds and golds of a Macau casino (Skyfall).
How does he do it? In a 2015 interview with Variety, Deakins attributed much of his working method to instinct, something he learned from his early days as a documentary camera operator.
“The documentaries gave me two things really,” he said. “An experience of the world and a sixth sense about what’s about to happen and what’s important in the frame. I think that’s really key to what I do; it’s how you position yourself and the camera to interpret what’s in front of you. It also teaches you to work very quickly and very instinctively.”
Now, at last, those instincts have finally earned Deakins an Oscar, and not a moment too soon. Even before he won, fans were gearing up to be furious if he didn't, and the hashtag #DeakinsOrRiot began trending on Twitter. With his streak finally broken, Deakins will just go back to what he does best: crafting beautiful images. At the moment he's working on an adaptation of The Goldfinch with director John Crowley (Brooklyn), and after that even more possibilities will be open to him. It took 24 years, but we can finally say "Academy Award Winner Roger Deakins."