Albert Maysles, the award-winning documentarian who, with his brother, David, made intensely talked-about films, including “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter,” with their American version of cinéma vérité, died Thursday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by K. A. Dilday, a family friend.
Mr. Maysles (pronounced MAY-zuls) departed from documentary conventions by not interviewing his films’ subjects. As he explained in an interview with The New York Times in 1994, “Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is.”
That immediacy was a hallmark of the Maysles brothers’ films, beginning in the 1960s, when they made several well-regarded documentaries. But it was “Gimme Shelter” (1970), about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American tour, that brought them widespread attention. It included a scene of a fan being stabbed to death at the group’s concert in Altamont, Calif., and the critical admiration for the film was at least partly countered by concerns that it was exploiting that violence.
Concerns about a different kind of exploitation were expressed about “Grey Gardens” (1975), a double portrait of Edith Bouvier and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, both cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who lived in squalor and with what some saw as mental confusion in a once-grand house in East Hampton, N.Y.
But the film captured and held the public’s attention for decades, perhaps because the public sensed what Martin Scorsese wrote decades later in a foreword to “A Maysles Scrapbook”: “When Al is behind the camera, there’s a sensitivity to mood, to space and light, to the energy between the people in the room.”
Mr. Scorsese described Mr. Maysles’s camera as “an inquisitive presence, but also a loving presence, an empathetic presence, tuned to the most sensitive emotional vibrations.”
“Grey Gardens” was the basis of a musical of the same title, for which both Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson won Tony Awards in 2007 after it had transferred to Broadway from Playwrights Horizons. A 2009 HBO film version won six Emmy Awards, including those for best television movie and best lead actress (Jessica Lange).
The Maysles brothers’ films, whether made for movie theaters or television, were mostly seen on TV, and two won Emmys: “Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic” (1985) and “Soldiers of Music” (1991), about Mstislav Rostropovich’s return to Russia. That film was made, with three co-directors, after David Maysles’s death of a stroke in 1987. Albert Maysles was also a co-director of Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke’s “Abortion: Desperate Choices,”which won a 1992 Emmy.
Mr. Maysles made five films about the work of the installation artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. The first was “Christo’s Valley Curtain” (1974), which was nominated for a documentary short-subject Oscar, and the last was “The Gates” (2005), about the artists’ temporary transformation of Central Park.
Mr. Maysles received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in July. His most recent documentary, “Iris” (2014), about the fashionable interior decorator Iris Apfel, was shown at the New York Film Festival in October. And the Tribeca Film Festival recently announced it would screen the world premiere of “In Transit,” a film he directed with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, exploring the long-distance train route of the Empire Builder.
Albert H. Maysles was born in Boston on Nov. 26, 1926. His parents, a postal clerk and a schoolteacher, lived in Dorchester and later moved to suburban Brookline, where Albert and his younger brother grew up. Albert had a learning disability, which led him, he said, to develop the intense listening skills that served him so well in documentary filmmaking.
He studied psychology at Syracuse University, received a master’s degree from Boston University and taught psychology there for three years before making his first film. It was “Psychiatry in Russia” (1955), a silent documentary that he shot on a trip to the Soviet Union.
He followed that with “Youth in Poland” (1957), for which his brother, who had been working as a production assistant on Hollywood movies, was co-director.
Albert was soon invited to be part of a film crew, including the documentarian D. A. Pennebaker, put together by Robert Drew. They were working with new battery-powered cameras and sound recorders that allowed them greater freedom to be unobtrusively close to their subjects. Mr. Maysles was co-cinematographer on Mr. Drew’s “Primary” (1960), about an early Democratic presidential contest between John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey.
In 1962, the brothers established Maysles Films, putting the new technology to work. They made ends meet by doing television commercials for large corporations like IBM and Merrill Lynch, then made their early reputation with “Salesman” (1968), a study of four door-to-door Bible sellers who target the poor. But the Maysles had already done impressive if sometimes seemingly lightweight work, including “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” (1964), which followed the British rock group to three American cities. “With Love From Truman” and “Meet Marlon Brando,” both 1966, were also well received.
As the years passed, Mr. Maysles worked, often with co-directors, on a wide range of subjects, including the Getty Museum, Gypsy music, Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue and poverty in the Mississippi Delta. In 2006 he founded what is now the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem.
Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Gillian Walker; two daughters, Rebekah and Sara; a son, Philip; and a stepdaughter, Auralice Graft.
Interviewed in 2005 by The Times, Mr. Maysles was asked the key to his successful career. He answered, “Making films exactly the way I believe they should be made.” But he also told Interview magazine: “One of the things that makes it easy is that I have a true love for people, and so I have no difficulty getting and keeping access.”