10 Culturally Iconic Moments in the Career of Albert Maysles (1926 – 2015)

Though he never received the appreciation of his peers, documentarian Albert Maysles' mark on the genre remains indelible, and important. Here are 10 reasons why.

He never won an Oscar. His only nomination came in 1974, for one of several films focusing on a notorious conceptual artist and his sometimes baffling works. Yet with his passing at age 88 last week, Albert Maysles leaves behind a legacy worthy of the artform’s founding. Embracing the French concept of cinéma vérité, the late great documentary director and his equally gifted brother developed their “direct cinema” technique, playing fly-on-the-wall as personalities and events played out before them.

There was no agenda, no voice-over narration to provide a specific point of view. The Maysles let their subjects speak for themselves, and in doing so they uncovered information a formal interview would never provide.

Albert and his younger brother David were born to Jewish immigrant parents in Boston, Massachusetts. The older sibling never really had any intention of being a filmmaker. He got a degree in Arts from Boston University and ended up teaching psychology for three years. On a trip to Russia to photograph a mental hospital, Albert was struck by the potential story there. He returned the next year with a movie camera, the result being his first official documentary, Psychiatry in Russia. From there, it was one historic movie after another, in addition to more TV titles. He worked with Robert Drew as a cameraman on the influential political film Primary where he further developed his style and technique.

But it was the late ’60s where Albert and David truly shined. Over a period of ten years, they offered overviews of Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern, the Rolling Stones, and most memorably Big Edie and Little Edith Beale, relatives of Jackie-O. These films have now become the benchmarks for the brothers’ “no interfering” style. In fact, Albert often said that it was not the movie that was important, but the people in it. Now, with his death, an iconic figure in the world of film is gone, though the style he helped invent remains a solid part of the documentary aesthetic.

It’s with that in mind that we highlight ten pop culture milestones created and/or aided by Albert Maysles. Along with his collaborators, he showed cinephiles that the old adages — truth is stranger than fiction, being at the right place at the right time — results in fabulous, fascinating film.


10. Meet Marlon Brando

At only 25 minutes long, this barely constitutes a full-fledged film. On the other hand, the Maysles use of the “fly-on-the-wall” technique works wonders as we are allowed to see the often difficult actor in a completely different light. Unwilling to promote his latest film Morituri, the snide Brando proceeds to launch into a series of self-involved monologues, avoiding most interviewer questions to instead address whatever he wants. It’s a precursor to how Brando would deal with the media for the rest of his career. As usual, the Maysles’ presence is only there in post-production, where their use of editing provides a provocative portrait.


9. Concert of Wills: Making of the Getty Center

Money does indeed change everything, especially when dealing with the demands of a community, the vision of a famed architect, and the needs of a family legacy. So when the Getty Foundation approved funding for a billion dollar, one million square foot center in the California hills, the back-and-forth between bravado and the bottom line became as compelling as the proposed final project. Albert, in conjunction with longtime collaborators Susan Froemke and Bob Eisenhardt, took on the job of capturing the 14 year process in all of its businessspeak strategizing and unusual zoning requests. The result is a look at how legacies are shaped and mishandled.


8. Muhammad and Larry

As part of the famed ESPN 30 for 30 series, this short film focused on the swan song to one of the greatest fighters and fight careers of all time. Muhammad Ali, aging and broken, appears as cocky as ever, assured he will defeat Larry Holmes in their big bout. As the contest draws near, the Maysles make a startling discovery: both men really care for and respect each other. Thanks to the efforts of Bradley Kaplan, who compiled the previously unseen footage into a cohesive narrative, we get a peek inside both the now DOA fight game, as well as how the Maysles handled their subjects.


7. Letting Go: A Hospice Journey

This is a tough subject, dealt with compassionately and with insight. Having gained access to three patients and their families as they go through the traumatic process of letting their terminally ill loved ones go, Maysles (along with Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickinson) manages to bring sympathy as well as the struggles of each individual to light. From an active 62 year old who is suddenly days from death, to a woman who believes her faith will “cure” her, to a young boy in an irreversible coma, the circumstances belie the emotions involved. As usual, the filmmakers find more layers and complexities than those we expect to see.


6. Iris

Iris Apfel — who is still with us at 94 — invited Albert into her home to see how the aging NYC icon, famous for her work in the city’s renowned fashion industry, spends her still busy days. The result is a rip-roaring examination of creativity, work ethic, and being able to participate in a pastime you adore. Quick-witted and warm but not afraid to show off a more stern, matronly side, Iris blossoms under Maysles’ camera lights; her anecdotes and advice are as pertinent today as they were when she was a middle class gal living in Queens during the Great Depression. A must see.

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5. The Christo Films

Throughout the late ’50s and up through the early ’80s, the famed conceptual artist (with the help of wife and partner Jeanne-Claude) made headlines with insane temporary art installations. From draping a nine ton orange nylon veil between two mountain peaks to using six point five million square feet of pink fabric to encapsulate eleven Florida islands, Christo’s work became the embodiment of the post-modern movement in its outsider aesthetic. The Maysles were there every step of the way, documenting the trials and tribulations of his efforts for posterity. The six collaborations between them mark a truly important moment in both artforms.


4. What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.

Few got to see the Fab Four “unexpurgated”. From the moment they landed on our shores, their image was carefully protected to keep the fans frantic and the naysayers quiet. Luckily, the Maysles (with help) had access to the group for this no-holds barred overview from the moment they touched down at JFK airport in New York to their triumph return to England after The Ed Sullivan Show appearance. Over five days, we see a collection of very young men attempting to adjust to fame and the frenzy that follows it. More than just a look behind the scenes, we gain a glimpse of the lads themselves as well.


3. Salesman

Paul “The Badger” Brennan, Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt, James “The Rabbit” Baker, and Raymond “The Bull” Martos are door-to-door Bible hucksters who we watch working in and around Boston before moving onto a convention in Chicago and a new — and very promising — territory: Miami. Each has earned a nickname based on their particular style of selling, and thanks to the direct cinema technique the Maysles employ, they speak for themselves in ways no narrative could decipher. It’s all about the pitch, the modification of the spiel to the specific economic and education levels of those being approached. In the end, we learn more about them than their product.


2. Gimme Shelter

Of the two main masterpieces that make up the Maysles’ mythos, this is the most disturbing and direct. When the Rolling Stones decided to make-up for being MIA at Woodstock, they planned a concert in California that had disaster written all over it. From venue issues to security concerns, the group hired the Maysles to capture it all, including the lethal stabbing of a concertgoer by a member of the Hells Angels. While the musical sequences are special, nothing is more compelling than the moment when the filmmakers find the crime and then show it to the members of the band. Their reactions turn the movie from profound to priceless.


1. Grey Gardens/The Beales of Grey Gardens

Talk about hitting the jackpot. When the Maysles read that relatives of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were living in squalor in a rundown Hamptons manor complete with holes in the roof and wildlife infestations, they immediately grabbed the cameras in order to capture the chaos. What they found, instead, were two fading socialites eager to pose for their lens — and argue incessantly — about who among them was responsible for their lack of legitimacy and fame. While Big Edie enjoys time with her cats, 59 year old Little Edie thinks she can still be a Hollywood starlet. The subjects were so compelling they became the source for books, movies, and even a musical. But it was the Maysles’ two films that functioned as a love letter to their formidable fall from grace.