‘Birdman’ cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki joins exclusive club with Oscar win

By winning the Best Cinematography Oscar for a second year in a row, “Birdman” director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki has joined a truly elite club whose ranks haven't been breached in nearly two decades.

Only four other cinematographers have won the prize in two consecutive years. The last time it happened was in 1994 and 1995, when John Toll won for Edward Zwick's “Legends of the Fall” and Mel Gibson's “Braveheart” respectively. Before that you have to go all the way back to the late '40s, when Winton Hoch won in 1948 (Victor Fleming's “Joan of Arc” with Ingrid Bergman) and 1949 (John Ford's western “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”). Both victories came in the color category, as the Academy awarded prizes separately for black-and-white and color photography from 1939 to 1956.

Leon Shamroy also won back-to-back color cinematography Oscars, for Henry King's 1944 Woodrow Wilson biopic “Wilson” and John M. Stahl's 1945 thriller “Leave Her to Heaven.” Along with Joseph Ruttenberg, Shamroy holds the overall record for Academy Award wins among DPs with four.

But Howard Greene was the first of this tribe to be recognized by the Academy in two consecutive years, and each prize was a special commendation for color photography in its early days rather than a competitive award. The first came for Richard Boleslawski's 1936 romance “The Garden of Allah,” starring Marlene Dietrich, and the second for 1937's seminal Janet Gaynor/Fredric March event “A Star is Born.” Both were filmed using the three-strip Technicolor process, with “The Garden of Allah” being just the third film to use the technique and the first to do so on location.

When you look at lineages such as this, you see that a few names begin to really dominate their eras. Shamroy, winning for films like “The Black Swan” and the two mentioned above, was a force in the '40s, as was Arthur Miller (winner in the black-and-white field for “How Green was my Valley,” “The Song of Bernadette” and “Anna and the King of Siam”). Robert Surtees, with wins for “King Solomon's Mines,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Ben-Hur,” was a strong presence in the '50s, while Freddie Young's epic work in “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Ryan's Daughter” makes a significant case for him in the '60s.

But we haven't really had such a compass needle as Lubezki pointing the way of innovation so consistently in quite some time. His work with Terrence Malick is one thing, bringing such aesthetic beauty to films like “The New World,” “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder,” but he was there at the forefront of Hollywood's exploration of digital photography right alongside Michael Mann with “Ali.” He and director Alfonso Cuarón developed an entirely new language to capture the vision of “Gravity,” for which Lubezki won his first Oscar last year. And now, with “Birdman,” he has rendered a meticulous experience with director Alejandro González Iñárritu that few could imagine pulling off.

It's no wonder he's the most exciting cinematographer working today. And we have “The Revenant” to look forward to in 2015, already stirring buzz for it's gorgeous photography alone.

To date, 25 cinematographers have won multiple Oscars. They are:

4 wins

Joseph Ruttenberg – “The Great Waltz” (1938), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956) and “Gigi” (1958)
Leon Shamroy – “The Black Swan” (1942), “Wilson” (1944), “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945) and “Cleopatra” (1962)

3 wins

Howard Greene – “The Garden of Allah” (1936)*, “A Star is Born” (1937)* and “Phantom of the Opera” (1943)
Arthur Miller – “How Green was my Valley” (1941), “The Song of Bernadette” (1943) and “Anna and the King of Siam” (1946)
Robert Surtees – “King Solomon's Mines” (1950), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) and “Ben-Hur” (1959)
Freddie Young – “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) and “Ryan's Daughter” (1970)
Conrad L. Hall*** – “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), “American Beauty” (1999) and “Road to Perdition” (2002)
Vittorio Storaro – “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “Reds” (1981) and “The Last Emperor” (1987)
Robert Richardson – “JFK” (1991), “The Aviator” (2004) and “Hugo” (2011)

2 wins

Charles Rosher – “Sunrise” (1927) and “The Yearling” (1946)
Hal Mohr – “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (1935)** and “Phantom of the Opera” (1943)
Ray Rennahan – “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “Blood and Sand” (1941)
Harry Stradling – “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) and “My Fair Lady” (1964)
Winton Hoch – “Joan of Arc” (1948) and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
William C. Mellor – “A Place in the Sun” (1951) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959)
Burnett Guffey – “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)
James Wong Howe – “The Rose Tattoo (1955) and “Hud” (1963)
Freddie Francis – “Sons and Lovers” (1960) and “Glory” (1989)
Haskell Wexler – “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) and “Bound for Glory” (1976)
Geoffrey Unsworth – “Cabaret” (1972) and “Tess” (1980)
Sven Nykvist – “Cries and Whispers” (1973) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1983)
Chris Menges – “The Killing Fields” (1984) and “The Mission” (1986)
Janusz Kaminski – “Schindler's List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
John Toll – “Legends of the Fall” (1994) and “Braveheart” (1995)
Emmanuel Lubezki† – “Gravity” (2013) and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014)

* These were special achievement prizes rather than competitive awards.

** Mohr won this prize on a write-in vote. The official nominees were Ray June for “Barbary Coast,” Gregg Toland for “Les Miserables” and Victor Milner for “The Crusades.”

*** Hall has the distinction of waiting the longest amount of time – 30 years – between wins.

† Lubezki is the first to win multiple Oscars for digital photography.