John Bailey, Former Academy President and ‘The Big Chill’ Cinematographer, Dies at 81

The DP, whose Hollywood career spanned nearly 50 years, served as the Academy’s president from 2017-2019

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John Bailey, a Hollywood cinematographer whose nearly five-decade career included such films as “The Big Chill” and “Groundhog Day,” as well as a two-year stint as the Film Academy president, died Friday at 81.

“It is with deep sadness I share with you that my best friend and husband, John Bailey, passed away peacefully in his sleep early this morning,” said his wife, Carol Littleton, an Oscar-nominated film editor. “During John’s illness, we reminisced how we met 60 years ago and were married for 51 of those years. We shared a wonderful life of adventure in film and made many long-lasting friendships along the way. John will forever live in my heart.”

Bailey’s cause of death or specific illness was not mentioned in a statement released by the Academy.

Starting in 1972 and running through 2022, Bailey amassed 86 cinematographer credits in a filmography that includes countless hits and household-name movie titles. In addition to 1983’s “The Big Chill” and 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” they include “Silverado” (1985), “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), “In the Line of Fire” (1993), “As Good as It Gets” (1997), “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003), “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” (2005), “Must Love Dogs” (2005) and many more.

Bailey served two terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, from 2017 to 2019, and was the first cinematographer to hold the position. Bailey, a member of the Cinematographers Branch of the Academy since 1981, also served 15 years as an Academy governor.

“All of us at the Academy are deeply saddened to learn of John’s passing,” said Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Academy President Janet Yang. “John was a passionately engaged member of the Academy and the film community. He served as our president and as an Academy governor for many years and played a leadership role on the Cinematographers Branch. His impact and contributions to the film community will forever be remembered. Our thoughts and support are with Carol at this time.”

During his tenure as an Academy governor, he was vice president and chair of the Preservation and History Committee. He also served on the Academy Museum Board of Trustees and on several Academy committees, including the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, Film Scholar and Grants, International Outreach, the Science and Technology Council, Membership Screenings and In Memoriam committees, as well as the former Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee.

He also served as the Academy’s representative on the Library of Congress’ National Film Preservation Board. Bailey was a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, serving as secretary and vice president on its board of governors. He served on the juries of the Venice Film Festival, Aspen Shortsfest and Poland’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE Film Festival.

In November 2014, he received the Ojai Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. He was honored by the American Society of Cinematographers with its Lifetime Achievement Award in February 2015. In 2019, he was honored with another Lifetime Achievement Award at the EnergaCAMERIMAGE Film Festival.

Born in Moberly, Missouri, Bailey’s family later moved west. He was raised in the south Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk, attending high school in Downey at the private Pius X High School. After doing his undergrad studies at what was then known as Loyola University (it merged with Marymount College in 1973), he was accepted into USC’s School of Cinema, keeping him close to home.

He originally aspired to be a film critic, but enrolled in a cinematography course, in which he met a teaching assistant named Woody Omens. Bailey credited Omens as “the reason I had the courage to pursue photography.”

Bailey’s first big job came with 1980’s “American Gigolo,” a Paramount film directed by Paul Schrader and starring Richard Gere. He was hired to shoot the picture, against the odds, after doing several small films. In a meeting secured by his agent, Bailey impressed Schrader with his knowledge of foreign film, and the job was his.

Armed with the experience and cachet of “American Gigolo,” he was then hired by Robert Redford for Redford’s directing debut, 1980’s “Ordinary People.”

“I’ve never read a script to try to find photographic opportunities,” the Academy quoted Bailey as saying. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t reading those pages — instead, “I look at the emotional value to see if I’m moved.”

Bailey is survived by his wife Carol Littleton, an Oscar-nominated film editor and former Academy governor who will be presented with an Honorary Oscar in January.

A memorial service for Bailey will be held at a future date. The family requests, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Academy Foundation in memory of John Bailey.

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