Born on November 26, 1926, in Boston, Massachusetts, Albert Harry Maysles was the elder of the two brothers. The boys’ parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe—Russia and Poland—who had extended family ties in the Boston area. Their father was a postal clerk and their mother became a teacher with the public-school system in suburban Brookline, where the family moved when Maysles was in his early teens. Albert later linked his career in filmmaking to his childhood struggles with a learning disability. “For the first 20 years of my life, I must have uttered about 20 sentences,” he recalled in a 1994 New York Times interview with Jamie Diamond. “I was so afraid I wasn't getting everything that the intensity of my listening became greater than anybody else's …. A learning disability makes you concentrate as a visual person.”
Filmed Russian Mental Hospital
Maysles was draft-eligible at the height of World War II and served with a U.S. Army tank corps. He used his GI Bill benefits to enroll at Syracuse University, where he earned a B.A. in psychology, then returned to Boston to pursue a graduate degree at Boston University. In the early 1950s, he was an instructor in psychology at Boston University and conducted research projects with patients at psychiatric hospitals. Traveling around a divided postwar Europe on a motorcycle, Maysles seized upon the idea of documenting patients inside a psychiatric hospital in the Soviet Union. “I thought that if I went to Russia, I could dramatically humanize our conception of the people, just with photographs of ordinary people,” he explained to Rachael Horovitz in Interview magazine in 2012. “And I also felt, as I still do, that it's so much easier to go to war with a country when you don't have a single image of an ordinary person, so that's what I wanted to show.”
Maysles's interest in documentary photography coincided with a period of deep distrust and suspicion between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this cold war climate, even securing permission to undertake such a project was a near impossibility even for a major news organization, but Maysles was determined to turn his idea into reality. He hitchhiked down to New York City, pitched the idea to editors at Life magazine, who passed on it, and then headed over the CBS News offices, where an unknown journalist named Daniel Schorr offered to let him use a film camera and film stock. To persuade Soviet Embassy officials in New York City to approve a travel visa with permission to film inside mental health facilities, Maysles gate-crashed a reception at the Romanian Embassy with a press pass belonging to a journalist friend. “They ask for my passport and see that it doesn't match, and the KGB guy thinks this is very funny and lets us in,” Maysles recalled to Horovitz in the Interview profile. “Within minutes I'm talking to top Soviet leaders, and I told one of them what I wanted to do. He set it up for me. ‘Just call this number,’ he said.”
Maysles's debut film, Psychiatry in Russia, was a 13-minute short completed in 1955 that aired on NBC and public-television stations. His brother David, who had also served in the U.S. Army and earned a degree in psychology, had been working as a production assistant in Hollywood but quit to join Albert, serving as a director, camera operator, and sound technician. Both apprenticed with Drew Associates, a documentary film company founded by a former editor at Life magazine, Robert Drew, who sent them out with the most advanced equipment in film recording at the time. Known in industry parlance as syncsound cameras, these portable units were battery powered and equipped with an auxiliary sound recording device. The integrated microphone and lack of both power cord and tripod allowed the cinematographer to roam freely, following a person or idea as it unfolded in real time.
Followed Bible Salesmen
In 1962 the Maysles brothers launched their eponymous production company. Maysles Films pursued corporate documentary film projects for clients like IBM and Shell Oil, and these lucrative jobs financed their more experimental forays into observational filmmaking. One of their breakthroughs in the latter category was Showman, a 1963 up-close look at the life of powerful Hollywood producer Joseph E. Levine, an impresario with Boston roots. Levine handled distribution and marketing for Japanese monster movies like Godzilla but also produced several critically acclaimed films. He was so unhappy with the Maysleses' film that he hired a legal team to prevent Showman from being released in theaters.
Maysles finessed his style of direct cinema in a string of revealing documentary portraits in the mid-1960s. These included Meet Marlon Brando in which he and David tracked the Hollywood icon on a 1965 press junket, and With Love from Truman, a 1966 interview with Truman Capote filmed prior to the publication of his landmark nonfiction true-crime novel In Cold Blood. The Maysles brothers' other notable achievement from this era was Salesman, a 1969 jaunt across several states with a four men who hustled overpriced Bibles to gullible shutins. “When we started out, we didn't know exactly what we were looking for,” Maysles explained to New York Times film critic Vincent Canby about Salesman. “But we felt that salesmen like this are very much a part of the American Dream. Each one is out on his own hook. He thinks he's free, that it's just up to him how well he does—but it really isn’t.”
Excoriated for Including Fatal Crime
Gimme Shelter vaulted the Maysles brothers into national headlines in December of 1969. Hired just days earlier by British rockers the Rolling Stones to film some final dates on their U.S. concert tour, Maysles assembled multiple camera crews in place at an enormous free concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore Valley, California. The event descended into chaos long before singer Mick Jagger and his bandmates stepped onstage. As members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club—who served as security for the concert—assaulted hallucinogenic-addled concertgoers, the resulting scenes of mayhem were captured by the Maysleses' crew, which included aspiring filmmaker George Lucas.
It was the Maysles brothers' co-director Charlotte Zwerin who suggested a framing device of reviewing the footage of the Stones’ abbreviated set at Altamont with Jagger and other representatives of the band—and filming their reaction. As Jagger and the rest of the Stones plead with the Angels and the audience to remain calm during their set, the cameras captured a Hells Angel biker attacking Meredith Hunter, an African-American audience member who died at the scene from his injuries. In Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers and Zwerin review the footage with Jagger in an editing room and pinpoint the gun Hunter had drawn; the biker accused of stabbing hunter was subsequently acquitted when a jury reviewed the same footage.
Gimme Shelter was controversial and immediately attained iconic status upon its release in 1970. It turns up consistently among film critics' rankings of the best documentaries ever shot, and cultural scholars parse its imagery as one of the most effective intersections of the darker side of rock ‘n’ roll and the American counterculture at the end of an historic decade. “The most extraordinary moment in the film occurs … when Jagger loses control of the crowd,” declared film critic Amy Taubin in an essay accompanying a 2009 re-release from the Criterion Collection. “He's barely gotten out the first line of ‘Under My Thumb’ when a look of bewilderment mixed with recognition comes over his face, as if he's hearing the lyric for the first time—hearing it from the outside, as the three hundred thousand assembled fans are hearing it—and we see it dawn on him that he may be complicit in the violence that has crossed the line from collective fantasy to reality.”
Revealed Forgotten Kennedy Cousins
Maysles and his brother David produced another iconic film with an enormously enduring status, Grey Gardens, which became an instant cult hit upon its 1975 release. The film opens with two female voices discussing the whereabouts of one of their eight cats somewhere in a spacious but rundown house; the cameras pull back to reveal a woman in her 70s who appears clad in only a blanket. She turns out to be the paternal aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the widow of slain U.S. president John F. Kennedy. An introductory montage of newspaper clippings from the early 1970s then follows, revealing the squalor that Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged and equally eccentric daughter were inhabiting within their home in one of Long Island's most pristine, old-money oceanfront communities. “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” as the two women are known, recount the history of their 28-room mansion Grey Gardens and their declining financial situation. “I see it as an act of great courage for the two ladies to open their doors in such a way that we had total access to them,” Maysles recalled years later in an interview with Village Voice writer Eudie Pak. “People who claim exploitation say: ‘Only crazy people do that sort of thing.’ But we gave honor to their openness.”
Maysles and his brother worked on several documentary film projects with the environmental and conceptual artist Christo, including Running Fence in 1978. While David died of a stroke at age 55 in 1987, Maysles continued to make documentary films well into his 80s. He died at his New York City home on March 5, 2015, from pancreatic cancer. His wife of 39 years, Gillian Walker, was a therapist he met after he spotted her leaving one of his early films with her eyes red from crying.
Interview, August 2012.
Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2014.
New York Times, September 4, 1968; February 13, 1994.
Village Voice, April 23, 2009.
The Criterion Collection website, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/ (January 11, 2017), “Gimme Shelter: Rockand-Roll Zapruder.”❑