Monday, March 23, 2015

Albert Maysles: In Memoriam

It's Just a Shot Away

By Ed Garea

The world of documentary film lost one of its giants with the passing of Albert Maysles, who, along with his late brother David, was one of the giants of their unique American version of cinema verite, as illustrated in such films as SalesmenGrey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter.

To honor Mr. Maysles, TCM will air an evening of his documentaries tonight beginning at 8:00 pm.

Maysles died on March 5 of this year at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.

The Maysles Brothers were known for their departure from the usual documentary conventions in that they did not interview their subjects. As Albert explained it in a 1994 interview with The New York Times, “Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is."

He was born Albert H. Maysles in Boston on Nov. 26, 1926. His parents were both Jewish immigrants. His father, who emigrated from the Ukraine, was a postal clerk, and his mother, originally from Poland, was a schoolteacher.

The family lived in Dorchester and later moved to suburban Brookline, where Albert and younger brother David grew up. Albert was diagnosed with a learning disability, which he later credited with the development of intense listening skills that later served him well in documentary filmmaking.

Albert attended Syracuse University, from where he graduated in 1949 with a B.A. in Psychology. He later went on to earn his M.A. from Boston University, where he taught psychology for three years before switching to film. A trip to Russia to film a mental hospital was repeated the next year, but this time with a camera supplied to him by CBS, which permitted him to film his first documentary, Psychiatry in Russia, a silent film he made in 1955.

He followed this with Youth in Poland (1957), which began his collaboration with brother David. David, who had been working as a production assistant on Hollywood movies, served as co-director.

Their work impressed the famous documentarian Robert Drew. Drew, who has been called the “father” of cinema verite, invited Albert to be part of the crew, along with sound recordist D.A. Pennebaker, that produced the 1960 documentary Primary, which concerned the contest between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey for the Democratic presidential nomination in Wisconsin.

In 1962, he and David established Maysles Films, making ends meet by producing television commercials for firms such as IBM and Merrill Lynch. Their 1964 film on the Beatles, in which they followed the rock group to three U.S. cities, was to form the linchpin of the DVD, The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit. They followed their work on The Beatles with two 1966 documentaries, Meet Marlon Brando, and With Love From Truman, both of which were well received by public and critics alike.

But it was their 1968 film, Salesmen, a study of four door-to-door Bible sellers who target the poor, which made their reputation. The 85-minute documentary follows the salesmen as the travel cross-country selling expensive Bibles to low-income families, and the accompanying crises they endure, including burnout.

They followed it that year with Monterey Pop, a deftly filmed account of the most famous pre-Woodstock concert gathering, featuring the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Who, and the Mamas and the Papas. An indication of how exactly the camera could follow the participants was evidenced by the oft-cited scene of Cass Elliot being deeply moved while listening to Janis Joplin’s set. At the end of “Ball and Chain,” Cass is caught saying, “Wow.”

Monterey Pop proved an excellent warm-up for what became their most famous documentary, Gimme Shelter (1970), about the 1969 American tour of the Rolling Stones, which ended with the tragedy that occurred during their concert at Altamont, California, in which a fan is shown being stabbed to death. The film became a staple of countless midnight showings across the country, earning critical admiration tempered by concerns that the Maysles Brothers were also exploiting the violence.

In 1975, they made what many critics consider their masterpiece, Grey Gardens, a portrait of Edith Bouvier and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, both cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The mother and daughter were filmed living in squalor and isolation in a once grand mansion in East Hampton, N.Y. The house, infested with fleas and populated not only by the mother and daughter, but a large population of cats and raccoons, was brought to public attention as a result of a story in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine. When notified by the Suffolk County Health Department that the Beale women were to be evicted and the house razed, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill provide the necessary funds to repair the damage and bring the house up to village code.

Grey Gardens proved so popular that, over the years, it has taken on a life of its own, spawning a 2006 Broadway musical starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, and a 2009 HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the Beales, with Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jacqueline Onassis. The HBO production was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning three, and was nominated for three Golden Globes.

Albert and David also made Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1987), which was nominated for three Primetime Emmys, winning two. Their last collaboration was Islands (1987) a study of the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1987 Sundance Awards.

After David’s death from a stroke in 1987, Albert co-directed the 1992 Emmy Award winning Abortion: Desperate Choices, with Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke.

Over the years since David’s death, Albert worked as director, co-director and cinematographer, on a wide range of subjects, from the Getty Museum, to Gypsy music, Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, extreme choreography, rock concerts, and artist Keith Haring. In 2001, he received the Cinematography Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for his documentary LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, about a Mississippi Delta family’s struggle against poverty. In 2006, he released The Beales of Grey Gardens, a new perspective on the Beales utilizing unseen footage from Grey Gardens. His latest project was Hollywood Renegade, a documentary about screenwriter Budd Schulberg and his times, to be released this year.

In 2006, he founded what is now the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, and in July 2014, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Survivors include Gillian Walker, his wife of 39 years; two daughters, Rebekah and Sara; a son, Philip; and a stepdaughter, Auralice Graft.


8:00 p.m. GREY GARDENS (Rialto Pictures, 1976): Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith B. Beale, Jr. Documentary of a reclusive Long Island mother and daughter living in their own world at their mansion, “Grey Gardens.”

9:48 p.m. PORTRAIT OF AN ACTOR (Calliope Films, 1971): George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere. A portrait of George C. Scott, as related on the set of his film, The Last Run.

10:00 p.m. SALESMAN (Maysles Films, 1968): Paul Brennan, Charles McDevitt. David Maysles directed this documentary about the adventures and misadventures of four door-to-door salesmen.

11:45 p.m. GIMME SHELTER (Maysles Films, 1970): The original rude boys of British rock, the Rolling Stones, tour America, culminating in a death at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California.

1:30 a.m. MEET MARLON BRANDO (Maysles Films, 1966): Marlon Brando, Rex Morgan. A portrait of Marlon Brando, who is in New York to promote his film Morituri, goes awry when Brando becomes more interested in an interview conducted by a former winner of the Miss USA beauty contest.

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