In all the hullabaloo over the death of Elizabeth Taylor last week, you may have missed that Richard Leacock died the day after she did. Leacock was a towering figure in the history of documentary, and he may have had more influence than Taylor on film, both documentary and fiction, and on America itself. Ricky Leacock made his first 16mm film in 1935 when he was 14. He was a cameraman for the army during World War II, but he spent his time in the Pacific shooting Buddhist temples rather than combat. Like many combat photographers he learned to appreciate using hand-held cameras. After the war he photographed Louisiana Story (1948), the last film by Robert Flaherty, the father of documentary film. Leacock wanted to shoot it hand-held, but Flaherty refused.
Leacock continued to work toward a more informal documentary than the then-current educational, propaganda, “Voice of God” style. In 1954, his film Toby and the Tall Corn attracted the attention of Robert Drew, a photo editor for Life magazine, who wanted to bring the informal still photography of Life into film. Leacock partnered with Drew. Leacock worked out the technological problems and Drew developed the theories of what became known as “direct cinema”: a direct recording of reality in both picture and sound. The style is sometimes called “cinéma vérité,” although the latter is a French style that focused more on interviews than following the action. The first direct cinema film was the 1960 Primary, about the 1960 Democratic presidential primary in Wisconsin between John F. Kennedy and Humbert Humphrey. The style has become the dominant documentary style for the last fifty years, used by Leacock, Frederick Wiseman, and many others. The style also worked its way into fiction films. Michael Ritchie’s 1972 fiction film The Candidate borrows both the style and some of the content of Primary. Robert Altman’s films would not look as they do without the influence of direct cinema. A less happy side effect is the current use of the “wavey-cam” to make films like Cloverfield seem to be more real. Only seem, of course, since very few of them have Leacock’s observation of character.
In Primary, Leacock photographed one of the key scenes: Kennedy in his hotel room on election night. He was reluctant to intrude, but Drew pushed him, saying they were being granted access by the candidates. There was nothing like this in documentaries before: a behind-the-scenes look at the private side of a public figure. After Primary, documentaries began to focus on people more than issues. Those documentaries, including a film like Leacock’s 1963 Happy Mother’s Day, gave audiences access to people whom we had not seen or heard from before. The direct cinema style helped in the opening-up of America after 1960 as more and more different voices were heard, not only in documentary film, but in the media and in public life. Without Leacock’s hotel room scene in Primary, we would not have had Alexandra Pelosi’s 2002 film Journeys with George. Yes, the downside of this is all the reality shows on television, but also the more intimate, compelling documentaries like Spellbound (2002), Capturing the Freidmans (2003), and this past year’s Catfish. Leacock’s influence will live on not only in film, but in real life.
Tom Stempel has taught the history of documentary film at Los Angeles City College since 1972.