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 Salesmen, Grey
Gardens, and Gimme Shelter.
honor Mr. Maysles, TCM will air an evening of his documentaries
tonight beginning at 8:00 pm.
died on March 5 of this year at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
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 TheNew York Times, “Making a film isn’t finding the answer to
a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
include Gillian Walker, his wife of 39 years; two daughters, Rebekah
and Sara; a son, Philip; and a stepdaughter, Auralice Graft.
MEMORIAL TRIBUTE TO ALBERT MAYSLES
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
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.
Films, 1968): Paul Brennan, Charles McDevitt. David Maysles directed
this documentary about the adventures and misadventures of four
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.
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.