Robert L. Drew, a documentary filmmaker and the father of American cinéma vérité, died today at his home in Sharon, Connecticut. He was 90.
In the early 1960s, Drew and his associates pioneered a kind of filmmaking that’s now a staple of the documentary form. Over a career that spanned more than five decades, Drew made more than 100 films, many on social issues, politics and the arts.
Drew’s entire collection will be preserved by the archives of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, of which he was a member. Two of Drew’s films are in the National Film Registry, administered by the Library of Congress.
His list of honors includes the Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize, blue ribbons from the New York Film festival, the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, first prizes at the Venice Film Festival, 19 Cine Golden Eagles, the Flaherty Award, and the Dupont-Columbia Best Documentary award.
Drew was a Life magazine correspondent and editor when he formed Drew Associates in 1960 to produce his kind of films. He hired filmmakers who would later become well known, among them Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles.
Drew’s films pioneered a strict journalistic code that allowed no directing of subjects. The candid footage was edited into a dramatic narrative intended to give a sense of what it was like to be there as events occurred. His technique became known as cinéma vérité or direct cinema; he liked to call it “reality filmmaking.”
To accomplish this, Drew and his associates re-engineered a motion picture camera and sound recorder so they could move freely and in sync with a subject. This allowed them the mobility to capture real life as it unfolded before the lens, as documented in the documentary “Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuiX9xBbwc0).
For their first film with their new equipment, Drew convinced John F. Kennedy, who was running for president, to be his first subject. Drew and his team recorded the senator from Massachusetts as he campaigned for the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination in Wisconsin. The resulting film, “Primary,” was the first film made in which the sync sound camera could move freely to capture events as they were actually happening.
“Primary,” along with “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment”— the famous 1963 film about Kennedy’s decision to back racial equality as a moral issue and force the integration of the University of Alabama – won numerous awards and have been named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as works of enduring importance to American culture. “Crisis” includes candid scenes from inside the Oval Office.
Drew refined his early ideas about documentaries in a 1954-55 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, where he studied storytelling in order to craft documentaries that used narrative and what he called “picture logic” rather than following “word logic.” When he returned to Life magazine, Drew made several experimental films.
Drew formed Drew Associates and made several films under contract for Time Inc., which owned some television stations and sometimes teamed with ABC and commercial sponsors to broadcast the independent films. In addition to “Primary” and “Crisis,” these included some of the recognized seminal works of early cinéma vérité: “Yanki No!” (1960), about Latin America’s rising anger at its northern neighbor; “On the Pole” (1960 and 1961), which follows driver Eddie Sachs at two Indianapolis 500s; “Mooney vs. Fowle” (1961), an inside-the-locker room story of a high school football state championship game; “The Chair” (1962), in which a crusading lawyer saves a man from the electric chair; and “Jane” (1962), about Jane Fonda’s debut as the lead in what turned out to be a Broadway flop. Each of the films won major awards at film festivals in the U.S. and Europe.
Starting in 1964, Drew Associates functioned as an independent producer. Drew won an Emmy in 1969 for “Man Who Dances,” which depicts the grinding physical stress on New York City Ballet’s then-premier dancer, Edward Villella. That film was edited by a filmmaker who would soon become Drew’s second wife and filmmaking partner, Anne Gilbert Drew. The two were inseparable personally and professionally until Anne’s death from lung cancer in April 2012.
Drew won the Dupont-Columbia best documentary award in 1986 for “For Auction: An American Hero,” the story of a rural auctioneer and the family whose farm is put up for sale when their debts become overwhelming.
Robert Lincoln Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio. His family soon moved to Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, where his father ran a seaplane base on the Ohio River and taught his son to fly.
Drew left high school shortly before graduation to enlist as a cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After flight training school, Drew was posted to a combat squadron near Naples, Italy, and flew 31 missions before being shot down behind enemy lines on January 31, 1944, 16 days before his 20th birthday. Drew survived for three and a half months eluding German troops in the mountains near the town of Fondi, Italy, before finding his way through the approaching battle lines to return to his squadron.
Drew returned to the States and enrolled in a military engineering school so he could qualify to join the first squadron of jet fighter pilots, a posting he was finally granted. He was still in training when the war ended. When Life came to his base to do a story on jet fighters, Drew wrote a first-person essay for the magazine about what it was like to fly the plane. That essay eventually landed him a job as a Life correspondent.
Drew is survived by his three children, Thatcher Drew, Lisa W. Drew, and Derek Drew; three grandchildren; his brother Frank M. Drew; and his sister, Mary Way Drew Greer.
Jill Drew, his daughter-in-law, is General Manager of Drew Associates, which is active in distributing the company’s library of films.