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Overview for Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles



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Also Known As: Al Maysles,Albert H. Maysles Died: March 5, 2015
Born: November 26, 1926 Cause of Death: Natural Causes
Birth Place: Boston, Massachusetts, USA Profession: Cinematography ... documentarian producer director director of photography cameraman salesman professor of psychology


Alongside his brother David, Albert Maysles became one of the chief exponents of the cinema verité school of documentary filmmaking. After starting his documentary career with films about mental health in Russia and student revolt in Poland, the Maysles brothers joined forces with Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker to make a series of films, most notably "Primary" (1960), which followed the Democratic primaries between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin, and revolutionized the way documentaries are made. Turning to music, he directed "What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA" (1964) and later made the controversial Rolling Stones film, "Gimme Shelter" (1970), which documented the band's headlining performance at the violence-plagued Altamont Free Concert and captured the fatal stabbing of a concertgoer. In the following decade, the Maysles courted more controversy with "Grey Gardens" (1976), a disturbing look at co-dependency between a mother and daughter that was later turned into a Broadway musical and an Emmy-winning HBO film. Following the death of brother David in 1987, Maysles earned an Oscar nomination for "LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton" (2001) while making cable films covering everything from abortion and hospice care to Paul McCartney's 9/11 benefit concert in New York City, solidifying his status as one of documentary filmmaking's most celebrated pioneers. He died of natural causes at the age of 88 on March 5, 2015.

Born on Nov. 26, 1926 in the Dorchester area of Boston and raised in nearly Brookline, Maysles and his younger brother David were raised by their Russian immigrant parents, Philip, a postal worker, and Ethel, a schoolteacher. Developing an early interest in photography, Albert purchased his first camera when he was seven years old and sparked a lifelong fascination with images. Later in life, he entered World War II and served with the Army tank corps, before earning his bachelor's degree from Syracuse University upon his return. Maysles moved on to earn a master's from Boston University and spent the next three years teaching psychology. In 1954, he went to the Soviet Union to study their mental healthcare system and shoot photographs inside their mental hospitals. Although he was unsuccessful in selling those pictures, he managed to obtain a movie camera from CBS the following year and on a return visit, shot his first documentary, "Psychiatry in Russia" (1955). While no network touched the finished product, he did find an outlet at Boston's public television station WGBH which aired the documentary. Meanwhile, he and his brother David shot footage of a student revolt in Poland which aired as "Youth of Poland" (NBC, 1957).

Shortly thereafter, Albert and David met D.A. Pennebaker, who in turn introduced them to Drew and Leacock, and the filmmakers formed Drew Associates, a co-op where they shared both manpower and resources while collaborating on a number of films. One of his most significant contributions was serving as cinematographer and director of "Primary" (1960), a landmark political documentary that focused on the 1960 Democratic primaries between candidates John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin. The film was a huge breakthrough in documentary filmmaking because of their use of mobile cameras and lighter sound equipment, which allowed for greater intimacy and revolutionized the way documentaries were made. After "Primary," the Maysles were selected by Grenada Television to shoot the U.S. arrival of a British rock-n-roll phenomenon, The Beatles, resulting in "What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA" (1964). Although there was interest in studio distribution, the band's contract to make "A Hard Day's Night" precluded any widespread showings. Meanwhile, CBS purchased a shortened version and aired it with narration provided by Carol Burnett.

Hired by 20th Century Fox to film Marlon Brando to promote "Morituri" (1965), the Maysles pieced together the footage for their own film, "Meet Marlon Brando" (1965), an intimate look at the enigmatic actor that covered everything from his women and celebrity to the plight of Native Americas. Often collaborating with director-editor Charlotte Zwerin, the Maysles produced one of their best known works, "Salesman" (1968), a look at door-to-door Bible sellers in Boston, which for various reasons also did not gain widespread exposure until a 1994 airing on PBS. From there, they made arguably their greatest and most widely popular documentary, "Gimme Shelter" (1970), a controversial look at the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, the West Coast's answer to Woodstock. Filmed in December 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, "Gimme Shelter" spent much of its focus on one band, The Rolling Stones, who headlined and organized the event, which also featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and others. Mired by violence in part fueled by the Hells Angels, who were hired by the Stones as security, Altamont took a tragic turn when concertgoer Meredith Hunter pulled a gun during a melee in front of the stage and was stabbed six times by Hells Angels members, resulting in his death. Caught on film by the Maysles, Hunter's death stirred controversy over the filmmaker's status as detached observers, but more importantly helped mark a symbolic end to the days of peace and love.

Meanwhile, the Maysles received their sole Oscar nomination in 1973 for the first of several collaborations with the artist Christo, "Christo's Valley Curtain" (1973), which explored the artist hanging a nine-ton orange nylon fabric across 400-meters of Rifle Gap, CO using steel cables, iron bars and 200 tons of concrete. After a failed 1971 attempt that was destroyed by wind and rock, Christo managed to successfully hang a cloth the following year, only to watch as 60 mile-an-hour winds destroyed the fabric less than 30 hours later. . As with "Gimme Shelter," the Maysles' next full-length documentary effort, "Grey Gardens" (1976), sparked controversy for their portrait of the Beales, a mother-daughter duo living in seclusion in a rundown East Hampton mansion who were distantly related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A pathetic, but ultimately human look at two women who share their home with a multitude of felines, the film was a fascinating depiction of co-dependence and resentment, with particular emphasis on the mother-daughter dynamic. At the time of its release, "Grey Gardens" divided critics, some of whom praised it as one of the year's best films, while others found it tasteless and exploitative of two obviously mentally ill women living in both filth and in their once glamorous pasts. But the subject proved popular for other mediums, resulting in a 2006 Broadway musical and an Emmy-winning 2009 HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Also at the time, Maysles served as a camera operator on "The Grateful Dead Movie" (1977), which documented the band's five-night stand at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in October 1974 before their 19-month long hiatus.

After directing "Christo's Running Fence" (1978), which documented the artist's attempt to erect a 24-mile long fabric fence along ranch land in California, the Maysles turned to the sports world with "Muhammad and Larry" (1980), which explored the rivalry between heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. With his brother serving as director, Maysles shot "Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic" (1985), a private look at the life and career of the late piano virtuoso. After collaborating on "Ozawa" (1986) and "Islands" (1986), Maysles lost his brother David to a stroke in 1987 and subsequently partnered with Susan Froemke on a series of made-for-cable documentaries, including "Abortion: Desperate Choices" (HBO, 1992) and "Letting Go: A Hospice Journey" (HBO, 1996). Following his chronicle of the development of the Los Angeles Center in "Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center" (1997), Maysles significantly slowed down his output, but earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary with "LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton" (2001), which followed the hardscrabble life of a poor, illiterate descendant of slaves whose life is dependent on the cotton industry. He went on to direct "Rufus Wainwright - Milwaukee at Last" (2009), which documented the making of the singer-songwriter's seventh album, and "The Love We Make" (2011), a look at Paul McCartney's October 2001 benefit concert in New York following the 9/11 attacks that was released for the 10th anniversary of the events. Maysles' next feature-length documentary was "Iris" (2014), a portrait of interior designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel. Working as a cameraman and director up until the end, Albert Maysles died of natural causes at his Manhattan home at the age of 88 on March 5, 2015.

By Shawn Dwyer

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