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Cinema verite, documentary pioneer Robert Drew, whose credits include 'Primary,' dies at 90

FILE - In this April 27, 2007 photo provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Anne and Robert Drew, left, join Ed Carter and Grace Guggenheim, right, during an event honoring him at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The "cinema verite" technique and its pioneer, documentary filmmaker Robert Drew, were celebrated by the National Archives and Records Administration and Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Drew’s eldest son, Thatcher Drew, confirmed that the filmmaker died Wednesday morning, July 30, 2014, at his home in Sharon, Conn. (AP Photo/Neshan Naltchayan, AMPAS)

Filmmaker Robert Drew, a pioneer of the modern documentary who in “Primary” and other movies mastered the intimate, spontaneous style known as cinema verite and schooled a generation of influential directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, has died at age 90.

His son Thatcher Drew confirmed he died Wednesday at his home in Sharon, Connecticut.

Starting in 1960 with “Primary,” Drew produced and sometimes directed a series of television documentaries that took advantage of such innovations as light hand-held cameras that recorded sound and pictures. With filmmakers newly unburdened, nonfiction movies no longer had to be carefully staged and awkwardly narrated. Directors could work more like journalists, following their subjects for hours and days at a time and capturing revealing moments.

Filmmaker Michael Moore said Wednesday that Drew, along with Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, “made it possible for real stories to be told through film.”

“Modern art has Picasso. Rock-n-roll has Bill Haley. And the documentary film has Robert Drew,” Moore said. “All of us who make nonfiction movies can trace our lineage to what he created.”

Drew’s dozens of films included “The Chair,” a 1963 documentary about a death penalty case in Illinois, and “784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation,” winner in 1982 of a Peabody award. Many of his movies were edited and co-produced by his wife, Anne Drew, who died in 2012.

While a photographer and editor with Life, Drew formed Drew Associates in 1960 with the goal of applying his magazine experience to films. Among those joining him were such future directors as Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back,” ”The War Room”), Maysles (who with brother David made “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”) and Leacock (“Happy Mother’s Day”).

Their approach, called cinema verite, or direct cinema, also was used in feature films, by directors John Cassavetes, Louis Malle and Agnes Varda. And the new style led to fierce and enduring debates about truth in movies, whether a fly-on-the-wall approach was any more objective than a narrative with a point of view worked out in advance.

Frederick Wiseman, the award-winning documentary maker, would call cinema verite “just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning.”

Drew’s “Primary” is widely ranked among the most important political documentaries and in 1990 was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry for historic works. It follows presidential candidates and fellow Democrats Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John F. Kennedy as they campaigned in Wisconsin for their party’s nomination, which Kennedy eventually received.

“Kennedy asked questions about how this would work. Was I out to get him? He didn’t use those words, but that was his question,” Drew later explained. “I told him we were partial to neither side and would edit fairly, and for this to work at all, he would have to trust me. He gave me a long look and said, ‘If I don’t call you by tomorrow, we’re on.’ And he didn’t call, and we were on.”

In 1963, Drew and associates made “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,” about the showdown between the Kennedy administration and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was resisting a court order to integrate the University of Alabama. The filmmakers were permitted remarkable access — from the White House to the office of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to the Alabama university campus, where a defiant Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door, to inside Wallace’s car as he warned that the next presidential election would be decided in the South.

The public wasn’t used to seeing a sitting president filmed on the job, and some reviews criticized Drew for turning the White House into a movie set.

“The White House isn’t Macy’s window,” a New York Times editorial complained.

Added the New York Herald Tribune: The “president has no business in show business.”

Pennebaker would break with Drew after “Crisis,” alleging the film had been edited to President Kennedy’s advantage. Pennebaker also believed that Drew made too much use of narration, which Pennebaker and others would abandon.

Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1924, and at age 19 joined the Army Air Forces, flying 31 missions in Italy and surviving being shot down in Germany. While overseas, he would be deeply impressed by the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose detailed reporting shaped Drew’s filmmaking.

Drew’s documentaries covered various subjects, including Duke Ellington and space explorers, but he had a special fondness for Kennedy. The filmmaker would remember the president telling him that he should spend enough time around him so he wouldn’t even know he was there. The system worked so well Kennedy nearly undermined his own foreign policy.

“He forgot about us so completely that at one point he was talking about joint manoeuvrs off Cuba,” Drew said. “The country hadn’t gone into Cuba yet. A general who was there had to remind him there was a camera in the room shooting. He looked at me and grinned. I grinned back, and we walked out.”


AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report from Los Angeles.