Albert Maysles, pioneering documentary filmmaker, dies at 88
In between complaining about her mother’s cats, “Grey Gardens” subject Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale described why the dilapidated home was close to her heart.
The place, she said, in Albert and David Maysles’ landmark 1970s documentary, “is oozing with romance, ghosts and other things.”
Albert Maysles, who died Thursday of undisclosed causes at his Harlem home at 88, had an uncanny knack for capturing all of those elements.
Over a career that spanned and influenced more than half a century of moviemaking, the director innovated a fly-on-the-wall style that sought to ensure that no romance or ghost was left behind. The unobtrusive approach was nearly unheard of when Maysles began using it. But it soon became a standard, both for him and many directors that followed.
Maysles worked for the first part of his career with his younger brother David, who died suddenly of a stroke in 1987 at 54. He then continued by making enough films for the both of them, serving over the course of his career as director, co-director or cinematographer on at least 75 movies.
In many of these, Maysles was known for putting the camera at a very close distance and letting the subject unfurl itself — without cutaways to talking heads, archival material or to the filmmaker himself. Maysles’ approach was in-the-moment and reactive, a different tack than the more traditional reportorial style of many other documentarians.
That approach was evident in much of his work — in the traveling bible-vendor study “Salesman” (1968); in a half-dozen movies documenting the work of large-scale artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the most recent, “The Gates” (2005); in “Soldiers of Music,” a 1991 film about prodigal cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich’s return to Russia; and in “Gimme Shelter,” a movie that candidly examined the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour and the violent events that surrounded the Altamont Free Concert.
But it was “Grey Gardens” that epitomized Maysles’ career. The movie told of the two Bouviers, mother-and-daughter cousins to Jacqueline Onassis known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” who lived together in their run-down Hamptons compound, leading colorful and insular lives.
The film was controversial at the time of its official release in 1976. Some reviewers criticized the movie as treating its subjects unfairly. But those voices receded as the years passed, and many came to see the film as an unblinking portrait of humanity, albeit one with some famous names and unusual tics. (Maysles liked to say he was vindicated when Big Edie complimented him shortly before her death for “getting it right.”)
Although seen only by a niche audience at the time of its release, “Grey Gardens” soon took on cult status, growing so much in popularity that by the 2000s it would inspire an acclaimed Broadway show, an Emmy-decorated HBO movie and, maybe most important, scores of filmmakers.
The direct cinema style the movie employed — also practiced in some form by Maysles’ pioneering contemporaries Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker — is now commonplace in nonfiction cinema. The movie also laid the cultural groundwork for much of the unscripted drama on television today, which relies on Maysles’ intimate, observational style.
Maysles would decline to take digs at what he and his colleagues wrought. Still, he saw nonfiction filmmaking as a fundamentally empathetic enterprise.
“To me it’s about that. People always say ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’ but we never say ‘Meet Thy Neighbor,’” he told The Times in October. “How many wars would we have fought if we could have met a single member of the family we were fighting against? If you have the ability to connect through empathy, how you see the world changes.”
Born Nov. 26, 1926, and raised in Boston at a time when ethnic tensions were running high, Maysles, who was Jewish, learned quickly to defend himself. He said he was imbued with a softer spirit by his mother, a nurturing sort who helped inspire some of his more gentle filmmaking portraits.
Maysles studied psychology at Syracuse University and Boston University, and taught the subject for several years. But he turned to moviemaking after a trip to a mental hospital in the Soviet Union, relying on footage he took there to make the 1955 film “Psychiatry in Russia.” He soon teamed up with David, and would go on to direct a long series of movies both with him (in addition to the better-known titles they also include films such as boxing documentary “Muhammad and Larry” and the music tale “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic”) and, after David died, a wide range of acclaimed movies such as the harrowing “Abortion: Desperate Choices” the Southern-poverty doc “LaLee’s Kin”; the latter was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2002.
Like many documentary filmmakers, Maysles struggled to raise financing, and was often caught in a dilemma between making movies out of his own pocket — a risky enterprise — and ceding control to a deep-pocketed partner like HBO.
Maysles was a noted cinematographer and loved shooting. In recent years he would continue operating the camera for a diverse range of collaborators, including Oliver Stone (“South of the Border”) and a host of lesser-known filmmakers, often agreeing to shoot movies for first-timers who eagerly came to his uptown New York office with word of a project.
For his filmmaking achievements, Maysles received the National Medal of Arts last summer. Upon meeting President Obama, Maysles talked with him about filming the leader after he left office, the director said.
Maysles had continued working well into his 80s, and as recently as a few months ago was giving classes and attending events in Los Angeles and New York as well as Europe. He would regularly go into the storefront Harlem offices of the documentary production and educational center he founded in 2006, developing new movies and guiding a group of proteges.
Many days would find him at the center, a few blocks from the apartment he shared with his wife, therapist and professor Gillian Walker. Maysles would sit at a back desk in a bullpen among the other staffers, quick to tell a war story about an image over his desk or good-naturedly ribbing many of the young filmmakers around him.
Maysles is survived by Walker and their three children, Rebekah, Philip and Sara; Rebekah has worked closely with Maysles at the documentary center and helped produce a number of his films.
Maysles’ latest movie, “Iris,” had its premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall and will open in April. The documentary looks at the nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, a maverick spirit who, like her chronicler, has maintained a prolific work pace even at an older age.
Maysles’ long-awaited “In Transit,” a film he co-directed that captures strangers on long-distance trains, was just announced as a Tribeca Film Festival pick and will premiere when the gathering kicks off next month.
He was extremely keen on the project and was glad it could finally see the light of day. “Strangers talking,” he said in October. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”
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