Perry Miller Adato is an extraordinary documentary filmmaker whose métier is art and the creative process.
– Rebecca Paller, Associate Curator, Paley Center For Media
Perry Miller Adato was always eager to tell a story. She opens the door of her home on a summer morning in August 2011 smiling, dressed in bright colors, hair, and make-up flawless. Slim, with a vitality that is ageless. To enter her living room is to enter a world of art, books and the experience of many cultures. It is alive with fresh flowers, plants, and creative spirit. Adato leads the way to the stacks of files laid out on her table. She is prepared, ready to discuss a near half-century of work as a ground breaking non-fiction filmmaker. It’s a career that has been an act of imagination, talent, diligence, and passion. Adato credits luck and timing – but something else as well. “If I believed in something, I could convince other people. I was really a wonderful salesman, a salesman of ideas,” she says. But I have to believe in what I’m selling. If you believe in something, it makes it possible.”
The awards honoring her films are one measure of Adato’s achievement. In 1978 she became the first woman to win a Directors Guild of America Award for “The Most Outstanding Achievement in Documentary” and would go on to receive three more DGA medallions. Other honors for her work include a national Emmy, two Alfred I. DuPont/ Columbia University awards, five Cine Golden Eagles, and numerous film festival prizes, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Festival of Films on Art, Montreal. The sheer extent of her body of work, the length of her career and the recognition of its value by her peers are further testimony to Adato’s contribution to her field.[br] Perry Miller Adato is best known as a Director/Producer of biographical films about artists and writers. Her subjects include Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Carl Sandburg, Eugene O’Neill and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Yet Adato says she never set out to become a specialist in biographical art films. “I had no intention of becoming a biographical filmmaker. It never occurred to me that this was something to devote myself to.” [ii] Adato cites the story of Jack Benny, whom she once interviewed, and how he became known as a “stingy man.” Benny told one stingy joke and got laughs and then another got even bigger laughs and another until eventually stinginess defined him. The first film Adato directed was about the poet Dylan Thomas. The second told the story of writer Gertrude Stein. “And before I knew it I was a biographical filmmaker,” Adato says. “And I found that actually I really was very interested in the connection between the life and the work. And that of course is what makes a good biography…the effect of the place, the effect of their whole personal background on their work – the whole life story.” [iii] [br]
It was Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me (NET 1970), a 90-minute public television program, that truly formed Adato’s reputation. The film itself came about partly by accident. Adato, who was then working at NET, a national public television organization that preceded PBS, wanted passionately to do a program about Paris from about 1905 to 1930 when the city was a mecca for creative artists, an international center of the modernist revolution. It would take 40 years for Perry Miller Adato to realize this dream; her two-hour film, Paris The Luminous Years, would be broadcast in prime time on PBS in 2010 . In 1969, the NET executive felt that the subject was interesting but too broad and asked her to narrow the focus down to one person who represented the era. Says Adato: “Of course it had to be Gertrude Stein”. The American writer, poet and art collector hosted her famous salon attended by painters and writers such as Matisse and Picasso and Hemingway. “You know Gertrude Stein was a center,” Adato explains, and “she was and still is an important literary figure.” [iv]
by Gertrude Stein
The Stein film, early in Adato’s career, already bore filmic traits that would become her signature. Adato pays great attention to how she starts a film, aiming to suggest the essence of her subject in the first frames. InGertrude Stein: When This You see, Remember Me, Adato opens with a sequence set in contemporary New York City as the singer/composer Al Carmines with a cast of actors and singers perform a show in Greenwich Village based on Stein’s work. The scene instantly established Stein as a person of current, not merely historical, interest and brought the viewer into Stein’s world. Another Adato trademark is that she designs each film to reflect the style of her subject. In Gertrude Stein , she used editing techniques to echo the rhythms of Stein’s writing. Repeating images accompany Stein’s repeating words. “I think that the style of the film has to come out of the style of the work and the personality and the life story of the artist,” [v] Adato explains. In the editing, she created different rhythms through the timing of the cuts to signal transitions and to evoke story, time and place through image and music. In the Stein film, Adato points out “there are very poetic and very slow sequences and (we) then cut to something which is…a completely different rhythm which is what makes the film so interesting.” [vi] Kris Liem, an editor who has worked with Adato on two later films, describes the process of making music choices: “She likes to listen to lots and lots of music and finally, when she hears it she knows that that’s the one. The pacing of the film, I think…it just comes from within her. She has her own internal clock.” [vii] Adato also prefers to tell her story visually and through her subject’s own voice represented in letters and other writings, with minimal or no use of narration. The Stein film has no narration. The narrative was driven by excerpts from Stein’s own book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas , read by an actor in voice-over.
Gertrude Stein When This You See Remember Me is considered to be one of the first American biographical documentaries to make extensive use of photographs and artworks. Adato’s innovation in the Stein film was to creatively combine stills with a variety of other storytelling techniques: excerpts from an off-Broadway musical, an opera, a dramatized scene from a Stein literary classic, abstract images that mirror her abstract poems, witty and in-depth interviews, bringing an historical figure to vivid life. Adato moved the camera deep into the film’s still images. As Kris Liem puts it: “Her approach is to discover the picture with the audience. So you get down in there really tight and you find something.” [viii] Ken Burns, who uses this technique extensively in his acclaimed historical documentaries, has credited Adato’s films as influence and inspiration. His former wife and co-producer, Amy Stechler, told Adato that she and her husband were excited by Adato’s documentary when they were in college as aspiring filmmakers, going through the Stein film repeatedly to study how it was made. [ix] She said to Adato: “We decided this was the kind of film we wanted to make.” [x]
Gertrude Stein: When This You See Remember Me remains an iconic film and one that illustrates distinctive attributes of Adato’s work. George Stoney, a renowned documentarian and Professor of Film and Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU has shown the film to his students numerous times. One reason he originally asked to screen it, he says, is because it’s funny. He wanted his students to understand that a non-fiction film does not have to be heavy and somber. [xi] Indeed, the Stein film remains a favorite for Adato herself. “One of the reasons that I’m very fond of Gertrude is that it’s in line with what I think…the filmmaker’s first responsibility…is not to bore the audience. Because if you bore your audience you have lost them…And Gertrude Stein is witty. She had a lot of witty things to say.” [xii] Others interviewed in the film were also amusing. Editor Kris Liem tells a story: “The first time that we worked together she said to me, ‘okay, just so long as we don’t cut the cookies. And I said, ‘but there aren’t any cookies in this film.’ And she told me that when she did her Gertrude Stein film, Jacques Lipchitz was in the film…and they were talking about going to Gertrude Stein’s salon. And at the salon, there were these little cucumber sandwiches. Janet Flanner liked the cucumber sandwiches. And Lipchitz says ‘oh but the cookies, the cookies.’ And that was in the film. And people would say, well let’s get the film down to time, somebody would say, you know that thing that Jacques Lipchitz says about the (cookies), we don’t need that. And Perry would say, ‘oh no, you need that, because that’s the humanity, that’s the humor, that’s who these people were and it makes you feel like you were actually in the place. You can never cut the cookies.’”
The awareness of her audience is something that was one of Adato’s instincts as a filmmaker and, indeed part of her character from early on. She was born with the name Lillian Perry Miller in Yonkers, New York. Her father, a dentist, died when she was two; her sister and her brother were raised by their mother who managed the few small apartment buildings in Yonkers that her husband had left her. Perry–as she soon came to be called– was interested in performing for people from a very young age. “I was always entertaining,” she says, “they told me when I was about two or three years old, I would perform something for a little family group and then say ‘Why, why don’t you clap for me?’ I guess you’re kind of born with that. I was interested in acting very, very young.” [xiv]
As a teenager, Perry Miller won leading roles in amateur theater groups and in High School productions. While still in High School, she started going to New York and New Jersey to perform in so-called amateur hours in local movie theaters earning five dollars a performance and coming home late at night. Then, while an apprentice in summer stock, she played the lead with the professional company for one week. The die was cast. In the fall, before returning to High School, she started making the rounds of producers’ offices. (The name “Perry” was one that people remembered because of the famous TV show at the time, “Perry Mason.”) A successful audition with the Theater Guild, the most prestigious producers’ group in America, led to a speaking role in Madame Bovary starring Constance Cummings and to thrilling membership in Actors Equity the professional actors union. Adato’s decision was made: she would finish High School; she would not go to college but instead move to New York and look for roles. Back then, it was considered a “shanda”– a “shame” in Yiddish, for an unmarried young Jewish girl to leave home. But Adato persisted, despite her mother’s concern and moved to Chelsea with a cousin as a roommate. To help support herself while making the rounds of auditions, she modeled. Adato was a moderate success as an actress in radio, off-Broadway and early television. But World War II was a turning point in her life.
Fascism triggered what Adato calls her “Joan of Arc” complex. It sparked a desire in her to act on a larger stage, to do something that would “make a difference”. “I had never wanted to do anything except be an actress. And then the world changed,” Adato says. [xv] She remembers the very moment when she decided to change course. She went to a screening at the Museum of Modern Art of film Director Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, intended to motivate soldiers. “I’ll never forget seeing the first film,” Adato remembers, “the emotional effect of this film was so powerful that if there had been a recruiter that signed you up, and I was such an intense pacifist until Fascism that I would have signed up.” She wanted to find a way that she, too, could help change minds. “Gradually I began to feel that if I was not an actress there were a lot of other very good people who were going to play those parts as well or better than I. But maybe there were some things that needed to be done that if I didn’t do [xvi]them maybe they wouldn’t be done. Maybe there were some things that I could do that mattered.”
The “something” that she decided to do was to form an organization called Stage for Action. Its purpose was to help the war effort and to affect social change by putting on short plays about social issues such as the need for childcare for working mothers during the war and the need for universal health care as proposed by the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill. The program staged the plays in community locations such as churches and union halls. Arthur Miller and other leading playwrights wrote pieces and star actors such as Sam Wanamaker volunteered their services. Once again, Adato used her instinct to entertain. “It’s really been my motivation for most of my life and my career that if you want to change people’s minds and their attitudes, if you want to teach them or tell them anything, you can’t lecture to them. You have to entertain them. If you give a form to your ideas that involves them emotionally…then they’re open to the message.” [xvii]
Adato had not forgotten the fascination with film and its power that struck her when she saw the Capra film. When the war ended, film replaced theater as her chosen medium. She had no desire at the time to make movies herself. She wanted to use film for progressive social purposes. Adato knew that it would not be possible to show 35 mm films in movie theaters. 35mm was expensive. And the theaters wanted features or newsreels. So she decided to research the field of 16mm film. She volunteered to work for free for Tom Brandon, who was the major New York distributor at the time of social activist films. She was working on a new catalogue of films about social issues. But she soon found out that Brandon was only willing to include films from his own library. So Adato moved on. She secured a job at the United Nations as Film Consultant with the Department of Social Affairs, creating an international catalogue of social welfare films. She says she got it easily because there was no competition; few people knew anything about 16mm non-theatrical film at the time.
Adato had married, but the relationship did not work out. So, after separating from her husband in 1949, Adato decided to go to Paris – the city with which she’d always been entranced. She had friends there, one of whom, Lothar Wolff, ran the international film section of the Marshall Plan. Adato splurged on first class on the ocean liner Ile de France and practiced her schoolgirl French by refusing to speak English on board… She ended up spending ten months in Paris and became fluent in French – “a magical time”, she calls it. [xviii] Adato became close to leading members of the UNESCO Documentary film unit located in Paris. She was invited to many film screenings and became inadvertently quite an expert on the European documentary film world. At the first International Festival of Films on Art in Brussels, in 1950, Adato saw the films of Luciano Emmer which inspired the technique she would later use for shooting still images. Adato credits Emmer as the first person to “move a camera in close to works of art in order to tell the story of the painting. It was a revelation. I mean a real revelation. I had never seen anything like it before.” [xix] Emmer’s choreography of image and music pioneered the modern art film. Adato knew what she was witnessing.
The films that Perry Miller Adato was seeing were virtually unknown in America. She decided she had to do something about that. In Paris she enlisted experts to create a list of the best selections. At the top of every list were the films of Jacques Yves Cousteau, a name that meant nothing at the time to American audiences. When she returned home in 1950, Adato formed The Film Advisory Center , a non-profit organization to import and promote European documentary films in the United States.
She gathered a group of highly influential people to help her, persuading the famous American documentarian Robert Flaherty to be Chairman of the Center. She also recruited Bosley Crowther, film critic of the New York Times, Aline Louchheim, art critic for the Times, Theodore Rousseau, Jr., Vice Director and first curator of European Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Arthur Knight, film critic for the Saturday Review of Literature . [xx] This group screened and chose from among the films that Perry had imported those considered worthy of promotion and distribution in the US.
Adato had paid to bring the films to America. Friends and family warned that she was taking a risk, urging her to focus on making a living. Adato recalls: “Did I ask myself could I do this or why am I doing this? I don’t think so. I think that I just saw what was needed and that it was an opportunity to do something that would be exciting and worthwhile. And I had enormous energy.” [xxi] The Film Advisory Center held a historic screening at MOMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, at which every seat was filled. People from Life Magazine were invited, resulting in a six-page spread on Cousteau’s films. Cousteau was soon on the map in America. His films were shown on the CBS program, Omnibus , for the first time on American TV. Perry made the deal. The New York Times did three articles on a variety of films screened by The Film Advisory Center . In the end, all of the best films were placed with distributors. Adato was paid 10% of what the distributors paid the European producers for American distribution rights. Adato now says: “This is what created my career, because through these contacts I began to know people. It was through the Film Advisory Center that I began in the film and television field.” [xxii]
One person jump-started her entry into television. Perry Wolff, a documentary Producer/Director at CBS News, had shown a couple of Film Advisory Center films on his CBS Adventure series. When Adato, in appreciation of her efforts was invited in 1953 by the French and Italian governments to attend the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, she needed money for a ticket to France. She went to Wolff, offering to write reviews of the documentaries she would screen in Europe in return for several hundred dollars and made a similar offer to the head of RKO Pathe’s Short Film Department and to Amos Vogel, Director of Cinema 16. All agreed. Wolff travelled to Europe himself that summer of 1953 and took the opportunity to meet with Adato in Paris. He liked her film reviews and offered her a job as Film Researcher on his CBS Adventure series. That fall she began work at CBS. It was the heyday of William S. Paley’s Tiffany Network , as it was known—a company that provided its news and public affairs producers with generous budgets and freedom to create. Adato had the title of Film Coordinator on Adventure , a live series produced with the Museum of Natural History, featuring a different scientist presenting his or her work each week. [br]
Jac Venza, was Art Director and then Associate Producer, overseeing the visual look of the programs. Venza went on to become a legendary figure in arts programming on television. Adato’s job on Adventure was to find films that would illustrate the scientific work. Venza remembers: “After a while we began to realize that we could take a subject and say, ‘Perry is there anything on this?’ And she would have access to extraordinary catalogues of European films that none of us had ever heard of. And her avenue to researching with just a name or a subject was broader than any of our concepts. So after a while she became a real linchpin in what we were going to program.” [xxiii] “I loved research,” she exclaims, “I mean I was a demon researcher. And I still am. One of the strengths I think of my films had a lot to do with how much I love the research and how interesting it is and how satisfying it is to discover something that will work in a program.” [xxiv]
Adato worked at CBS from 1953 to 1964. After working on Adventure , she was a film researcher for Seven Lively Arts, and two series called Conquest and Odyssey. She considers these years her film school. She looked at hundreds of documentaries and learned in the process. At that time the roles of Producer and Director, with a few exceptions, were not ones that were considered open to women. Yet eventually in 1962, she had the impulse to originate programming.
Adato had the idea for a film on the theme that creativity is not affected by age. She wanted to call it Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man . The film was made–with a man, Craig Gilbert, directing. Adato was Co-Producer. The title had to be changed to The Best is Yet to Be because two subjects, Edward Steichen and Jacques Lipchitz, objected to the original title. Adato says that she never thought of herself as being a producer/director at the time because meanwhile her life had changed.
In 1954 she met the man who would become her husband for the rest of their lives. She married Neil Adato in 1955. Neil Adato, born and educated in Turkey, had trained as an engineer but in America went into high-rise construction, rising quickly in the field to become second in command on New York’s prestigious Time-Life building and subsequently building private residences in Westchester and Connecticut. The Adatos had two daughters, Laurie and Michelle. As wife and mother, Perry Miller Adato found herself performing a juggling act to manage both home and work. Neil Adato was always supportive of her career but, as a Turkish man, had certain traditional expectations of his wife. The Adatos entertained frequently; Perry Miller Adato became an accomplished cook and hostess. The couple also travelled widely. And, of course, there was the care and raising of two young girls.
Adato knew that it was easier to raise young children while working as a researcher than as a Producer/Director. “I knew that when you became a producer “the buck stops here”. As a film researcher I could work from home a certain amount of time. Some years I could work three days a week which is ideal. And I remember Perry Wolff saying, Perry Miller Adato’s three days are like somebody else’s five. So I was being paid for three days, but I was working five.” [xxv] She and Neil moved to Westport, Connecticut, a suburb of New York. She loved being in the country, having a garden and walking on the beach. “I have a very intense feeling about nature, an intense appreciation and sensitivity about nature,” Adato says. But she spent four to five hours a day commuting to work in the city. “I was trying to do it all and do it perfectly,” Adato says. “At that time, it was rare for a woman with a film and television career to have a family. “I really feel I had it all, but you pay a price; you’re full of guilt all the time,” Adato says. “This was before the women’s movement.” Today, her daughters speak of realizing that their household was different from those of most of their friends. But they express great respect for their mother’s career and achievement and note that she was a dedicated and loving mother throughout their childhood and adult lives. Both Laurie and Michelle have vibrant careers themselves.
In the 1960’s, a new force arose in the American documentary world—public television. The Ford Foundation, which had financed the Sunday afternoon CBS arts program Omnibus , wanted to support primetime Cultural Programming. The result was National Educational Television, an organization that would both produce and distribute national programs. In 1964, Adato was asked to come onboard to do film research for a program called History of the Negro People. She would move up to become Associate Producer of the multi-part series. Jac Venza also had moved from CBS to NET as Executive Producer of cultural programs. While Venza was producing The Creative Person , a series profiling artists, Adato’s knowledge of available films again became central to production decisions. If she could find footage to illustrate a certain subject then the program could be done. Adato initiated several productions. She suggested one on the poet Dylan Thomas because she knew that there was an existing short film on him that could be used in a larger program. She persisted in urging Venza to do it. He recalls: “I said, ‘you know why don’t you just do it?’ She says, ‘what do you mean?’ I said,’ why don’t you direct it? You’ve been working with everyone as a support, since you have the real passion about this…why don’t you put together a proposal, then why don’t you produce and direct it?’” She did. Dylan Thomas-The World I Breathe (NET 1968) was her debut as a Producer/Director. She used recordings of Thomas reading his own work, illustrating them with selected images. For the first time, she had to plan all the camera moves over the stills. “I had never done it before,” she says, “and I found out that I knew how to do it. I had seen so many films on art you know, that I obviously had learned something. And I guess maybe I had a feel for it. I just had a feel for it.” She also wanted to include a scene from Under Milk Wood , Thomas’ play. So for the first time she directed actors. She was nervous. But Venza encouraged her. “He said ‘Perry you can do it. There’s no question in my mind. You can do it.’ [xxvi] Her acting experience helped give her confidence as well. Venza says: “It didn’t occur to me that she couldn’t do it. She had by now all this experience, watching how her work was converted into programs. So she had a terrific training for that move into becoming a producer-director.” [xxvii] “Adato concludes “And of course I did it. If you have to do something, you do it. And it turned out very well.” The film won a national Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Cultural Documentary.
Adato continued to work with Venza on an NET series he started called The Film Generation . The idea was to show short films by independent filmmakers, organized thematically. The first program featured student films by young directors. Adato, as Co-Producer/ Film Researcher, found one of Roman Polanski’s films made when he was a student at the Polish film school in Lodz. She remembered that a University of Southern California film student whose talent as an editor on another student film she’d seen had impressed her, should have directed some student films himself by now. She looked at four by George Lucas and chose his student work, THX , a science-fiction film which he would later turn into his first full-length feature. “We’re not taking credit you know for having discovered Lucas,” Adato points out, “A talent like that would be discovered and would make itself known. But we’re very proud of the fact that we did show a Lucas and a Polanski film and the work of a number of other young filmmakers for the first time.” [xxviii] The Film Generation series gave Adato the chance to direct again. Venza, who had directed the other programs, was unavailable to do the one on dance so Adato directed The Film Generation on Dance , which featured short independent films on that art form.
Perry Miller Adato was now launched as a Director/Producer. At last there was the opportunity to do the film she had longed to make – Paris and modern art in the early years of the 20 th Century. The project evolved into the program Gertrude Stein: When This You See Remember Me ( NET 1970) which brought Adato more accolades including two Emmy nominations for Best Director and Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Documentary. It became her calling card as a Director, testimony to what a biographical documentary could be. George Stoney, Professor of Documentary at NYU, sees the film also as an example of strong research. Adato says he told her: “‘Everybody wants to shoot, nobody wants to do the research. I want to use this film as an example of how important the research is.’”  [xxix]
The Stein film was a landmark in another way as well. It was the first 90-minute documentary program to air on public television. Adato had been ordered to cut it down to an hour, the standard length at the time. She was terrified; she had no idea how to edit it further. The head of Cultural Affairs, Curtis Davis screened it. When it was over, he said, “I wish my father, who loved Paris were alive to see this film.” [xxx] Adato had her 90 minutes.
The Gertrude Stein film was, in part, a recreation of Gertrude Stein’s salon–a gathering of fascinating people. Adato did interviews with luminaries who knew Stein intimately such as composer Virgil Thompson, fashion designer Pierre Balmain, the writer Janet Flanner and painter Maurice Grosser. “Somebody asked ‘how do you get close to people, how do you get people to relax and be able to talk to you the way they have on film?’ My answer has been “the way you get to be friends with somebody, you know how do you get to be friends with somebody? You have an empathy with them.”[xxxi] She was becoming known for her gifts of persuasion. Jac Venza describes Adato’s style: “She’s very positive and very fervent about something she believes. You have to deal with someone who’s very highly colored in almost every way and charming. She was a wonderful example of being able if necessary to use her female wiles if someone said ‘no” at first.” [xxxii]Adato, an experienced hostess in personal life, knew how to have a good time with the people she wanted in her films. She recalls inviting Thompson, Flanner and Grosser to lunch in Geneva at a famous gourmet restaurant before shooting started on the Gertrude Stein film. “And there was Virgil Thompson, Janet Flanner, Maurice Grosser and me. I mean how lucky can you get?” [xxxiii]
It was a time in American public television when directors had great freedom to enjoy their craft and take time to probe their subjects deeply. Alvin Perlmutter, now an independent producer, was working at NET in those years, met Adato at NET and remembers those days in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s: “There were no real boundaries in public broadcasting. Nobody asked any questions. It was funded by the Ford Foundation; whatever you felt was interesting and you could do as an interesting program that would get somewhat of an audience you were able to do.” [xxxiv] Jac Venza says: “This NET experience was extraordinary and invigorating.” [xxxv]
Adato’s next major film for NET was The Great Radio Comedians ( NET Playhouse; The ‘40’s) , WNET 1972. Venza, by then head of drama, was producing a series for NET Playhouse about how American artists defined a period. He asked Adato to do one on the ‘40’s about radio. Adato initially focused on radio comedy as a key genre of the era. She persuaded so many star comedians to participate and the footage with the comedians was so sensational that she persuaded Venza the whole show should be about them. So it was. The 90-minute program featured George Burns, Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny and Bing Crosby, among others. To meet the challenge of visualizing an auditory medium, Adato recreated the world of 1940’s radio comedy. She filmed a former radio announcer in an old radio studio to frame the narrative; found old radios and filmed the comedians listening to their own tapes, taking the audience back to the heyday of radio. Edgar Bergen performed a skit with his dummy Charlie McCarthy on-camera. The film got rave reviews although to her intense disappointment, its intended airdate had to be postponed when President Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnam’s Hai Phuong Harbour in May, 1972. Adato also produced and directed a short radio drama written by Norman Corwin for the NET Playhouse; The ‘40’s series. By the early 1970’s, the federal government had taken over funding of public television; PBS was formed as a distributor of national programming while key stations, including Channel 13/WNET, the New York public television station, would act as producers. So Adato’s production base moved to Channel 13/WNET, a new entity.
From that point, Adato worked on staff at WNET but with great freedom to propose and produce programs she wanted to do. IBM offered to fund a program on designers Charles and Ray Eames. Adato says: “I was in the position… (that) I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. I said ‘well, let me find out and I went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw some of Eames’ things.’” [xxxvi] Eames’ broad interests intrigued Adato. He and his wife Ray not only designed furniture; they designed their own home; they made films. And Charles Eames was an early computer expert. Adato says this eclecticism gave her the title for the film: An Eames Celebration: Several Worlds of Charles and Ray Eames (WNET 1973). At first, Eames had not wanted to do a film. But when he learned that Adato had directed the Gertrude Stein film, he agreed.
Adato’s next work was a series she conceived about American women artists. Adato was Executive Producer and directed three of the films herself. One of those would become, like the Stein film, a landmark in American biographical documentary film.
The subject of the first half-hour program Adato directed was the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Cassatt was an obvious choice. But she posed a challenge. “I think that in working on films I’m looking for the story, “Adato explains “for documentary films, the story can be even more important than in a fiction film because it’s the life and what was the struggle? I remember I had a terrible time trying to do this film on Mary Cassatt.” [xxxvii] Finally, Adato’s thorough research gave her the key. “I didn’t find myself very sympathetic to her until I began to read some of the letters she wrote when she was very young. And she was passionate about art. And of course her struggle was at that time, the 1870’s, women artists in general really had no status.” [xxxviii] The film,Mary Cassatt – Impressionist From Philadelphia (WNET 1975) follows Cassatt’s determination to leave her conservative Philadelphia family and go to Europe to experience great art and to paint. “She became the only American woman, or man, to be part of the French Impressionist group,” Adato points out. The opening of the Cassatt film illustrates one of Adato’s principles of filmmaking. “You can’t start a film that so and so was born in such and such a time. Nobody cares about the person or where they were born until they know something about them that is exciting. So for example, with Mary Cassatt we started with the first Impressionist show in Paris, which was absolutely a sensation. I mean people were ready to tear the pictures off the wall they were so shocked.” [xxxix]
The other obvious choice for the series was Georgia O’Keeffe, the most famous living American woman painter. Adato was warned that O’Keeffe was difficult and probably would not agree to be filmed. While the filmmaker was working on Mary Cassatt, she labored for six months on a letter to the artist. In it she pointed out that many things had been written about O’Keeffe by others; perhaps it was time for her to speak for herself about her life and work. Adato sent O’Keeffe the Stein film, which the painter loved. Finally, O’Keeffe invited Adato out to New Mexico for a meeting. “The first thing she said was, she looked at me, and she said ‘You don’t look like a television producer.’ And I thought that was already a good sign.” [xl]
Adato received approval to go ahead with the film. She defines O’Keeffe’s story: “The struggle for Georgia O’Keeffe was to maintain her own identity”, Adato says. “Being in the orbit (with), the relationship with Stieglitz (the photographer/gallery owner and O’Keeffe’s husband) who …was the person who in a sense discovered her, showed her work in New York for the first time, and promoted her constantly, but in some ways which turned out as far as she was concerned very negative. He promoted her as this sexual figure…so that her work was being equated with sexuality. Of course it’s easy to feel that there is a tremendous sensuality in the forms and in the colors. But they were not in her head. It was unconscious.” [xli]
As she had with her previous films, Adato did extensive research, looking for images, letters and rare personal movie footage. The Stieglitz/O’Keeffe archive at Yale’s Beinecke Library was a rich source of material. Filmmaker Catherine Tatge was Adato’s Associate Producer on the O’Keeffe film and experienced her research methods first-hand. “I remember going to the Beinecke Library…and sitting with her, going through Stieglitz photographs…and the way she looked at artwork I thought was really extraordinary. She had a really wonderful eye. It’s sort of in a way when you think of the Japanese tea ceremony, how you’re very conscious of every implement and everything you do. And in a way, that kind of respect in the way she approached the artwork …really helped me to understand how precious everything was.” [xlii]
At the time of the film production, O’Keeffe–who was 87 at the time– was working on her own book about her work. Adato seized upon the process of creating the book as the narrative spine of the film. In style, Georgia O’Keeffe (WNET 1977) stands in contrast to the Stein film. Adato followed her principle of adapting style to subject. Whereas the rhythms of the Stein program are often staccato and jazzy, the O’Keeffe film unfolds in languorous tempo with an original score accompanying the images. “I’m very into the poetry of film,” Adato explains, “I’m really anxious …to have a kind of poetic feeling. And for instance …in the O’Keeffe film…we did this beautiful sequence of paintings just with the music. And it was wonderful. It was poetic.” Like her previous major films, the O’Keeffe film had no narration. “I think as much as possible, that if you can do something visually with music and make your point even more powerfully, you always try to do it,” [xliii] Nadine Covert, consultant to the Montreal Festival of Films on Art notes that Adato “makes very selective and judicious use of talking head experts. She doesn’t let them take over the film so that you really do focus on their work. She lets the artist take center stage. She was one of the first people to really develop a way of looking at the work of an artist, of integrating the life of the artist into an overview of the artist’s work so that you come away with a deeper understanding of both the person and the work.” [xliv]
That integration is Adato’s goal. “Of course in working on Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the central things was the connection between the subject and the painting,” [xlv] Adato shot extensive footage of the New Mexico landscape that O’Keeffe loved and painted so often. The film footage would echo the painting without trying to imitate it, just as O’Keeffe’s paintings were not literal translations of the landscape. “The interesting thing,” Adato says, “was the transformation of the subject into a work of art. So it was very exciting working with her.” [xlvi] Adato is careful in all her films to show entire works of art, not just close-ups of parts of a painting. “I have seen a number of art films. And there’s a whole hodgepodge of details. And it may be startling and it may grab your attention, but you never get a feeling of the complete work of art that the artist intended.” [xlvii] In other films, like the Cassatt program, Adato shot the paintings in museums. In the case of O’Keeffe, she had access to 8 x 12 transparencies of the works that were being used for the book. So she filmed the paintings from these exceptionally fine color transparencies.
In the editing process, much care went into how the details of the paintings that Adato wanted to highlight would be shot. Catherine Tatge recalls that: “Perry was very much involved with the editor. In those days we used animation stands. She would look at a painting and decide how she wanted to make the moves on the painting. She would do these cutouts that were like frame cutouts and she would just move everything and document things on a kind of Xerox of how she wanted the moves to be done.” [xlviii] In later years, other documentary filmmakers would be credited with using moves on photographs. But, says Tatge, “Perry was doing that many years before. This is not anything that she hadn’t already done.” [xlix]Editor Kris Liem, who would later work on two films with Adato, adds: “People think that Ken Burns discovered this. Well, no.” [l]
O’Keeffe had not wanted the film about her to be part of The Women in Art series. She resented the term “woman artist”. But Adato told her it would be aired as a one-hour special, which it was. Georgia O’Keeffe premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. with O’Keeffe and Washington notables in attendance. The program was first shown on PBS in November 1977 in celebration of the artist’s 90 th birthday. Then it was repeated as the last film in The Originals -Women in Art series, which included six 30-minute films on American artists.
Georgia O’Keeffe received numerous honors, including the Directors Guild of America Award for Documentary Achievement 1977, the first Directors Guild Award given to a woman director in its history. She also received a Dupont-Columbia University Citation for Distinction in Broadcast Journalism 1978. There were seven screenings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1978 and 1985. Nadine Covert believes that the O’Keefe film “has become really a classic in films about art. It was in distribution for many years and became one of the top-selling art films ever.
As Executive Producer of the Women in Art Series , Adato was counseled by an advisory group of experts in American Art, engaging women filmmakers to direct four of the films. She directed three. After Cassatt and O’Keeffe, Adato decided to direct a program about Helen Frankenthaler, although she was warned that Frankenthaler could be difficult and might not agree. But the painter proved to be very cooperative . The film includes sequences in which the narrative proceeds just with image and music. Again, Adato did not use narration. A remarkable sequence at the end of the program follows Frankenthaler in the act of creating a painting, her canvas spread on the floor, pouring paint and moving it around with a handled sponge-like device. The scene was shot with a single camera and created with subtle editing that is almost unnoticeable so that the painting seems to materialize completely in real time before our eyes. Adato got an idea for how she wanted to direct the scene from seeing patterns of water on pavement. She told the cameraman to follow the paint patterns spreading on the canvas in the same way as her human eye followed the water. “Little things, that’s what makes a director,” she says, “the little things that you see that eventually get stored away somewhere and then are useful for you when you’re making a film.” [li]
After the women artists series, Adato returned to the place and period that continued to enthrall her. Her next subject was Picasso. WNET had funding. There were, of course, many other films about the painter. But Adato wanted to tell the story as much as possible through his own words and those of his family and close friends—hence, the title. Picasso – A Painter’s Diary(WNET 1980) comes from a quote from the artist: “My work is my diary. For those who know how to read, I have painted my autobiography.” Adato interviewed his children, Paloma and Claude who provided a remarkably intimate view of how Picasso mingled family life with his work. She secured an interview with 87-year-old painter Joan Miro in Majorca. The narration was also driven by the writings of Jaime Sabartes, Picasso’s closest friend who had written a book about the painter. Adato wanted a dramatic quality so she engaged Jean-Claude Van Italie, a noted playwright, to help structure the narrative. Van Italie remembers: “I spread yes, thirty pounds of research materials over the large floor of my loft, sifting through Picasso’s life, woman by woman. It was a huge project, powerfully energized by Ms. Perry Miller Adato.“
Adato’s connections in France and the depth of her research once again paid off. She was put in touch with people who had lived next door to his studio and reported that other artists hid their work when Picasso came around for fear he would steal from them- and do it better. In fact, as Adato reports, Picasso freely admitted to stealing ideas from others. “But I have a horror of repeating myself,” he said. When criticized for his many changes in style, the film quotes Picasso: “Does God have a style? He made the guitar, the harlequin, the dachshund, the cat, the owl, the dove. So do I.”
Adato’s own hatred for fascism led her to be profoundly affected by the Spanish Civil War and by Picasso’s famous evocation of it in Guernica. In Picasso – A Painter’s Diary , Adato intercuts shots of the painting with powerful archival newsreel footage of the bombing of Madrid. At the end of the sequence, she took a risk. In television, it is considered dangerous to have silence; the viewer might think there’s a mistake. But Adato defied the rule: “I felt there was a point at which even music would be too much. The experience of being in the museum and looking at the painting, nobody is talking to you, nobody’s playing music there. The picture itself holds you.” [lii] So Adato let the film go silent for some 30 seconds as the camera pans across Guernica.
The 90-minute Picasso film earned Adato another Directors Guild of America Award as well as a National Emmy nomination for Outstanding Information Program, a CINE Golden Eagle Award, and the American Film Festival Blue Ribbon in the Fine Arts category. The broadcast coincided with a major Picasso show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The New York Times review said: “In tracing the immense span of Picasso’s creative years, from his days as a wunderkind in his native Malaga to his old age as a wunderkind in the south of France, the film gives us as varied a view of Picasso himself as the Modern’s show gives of his art.” [liii]
Her reputation brought Adato her next project–a biography of the writer Carl Sandburg. To celebrate the Centennial of the poet’s birth, Lucy Kroll –Sandburg’s formidable representative, came into WNET demanding that Perry Miller Adato do a film on Carl Sandburg. Before agreeing, Adato did the research.
The well-known image of Sandburg was that of an avuncular, folksy, white-haired figure. “I began to find out about Sandburg. I became very interested in him as a young man…He was actually a real firebrand.” [liv] She saw an opportunity to pursue her interest in directing dramatic scenes. “I’d gotten to the point where I wanted to experiment a little.” [lv] She had directed a scene from one of Gertrude Stein’s writings in her film on Gertrude Stein. “But this was different,” Adato explains. “ I wanted to dramatize the life itself.” [lvi] Tamara Robinson, then Senior Vice President for Cultural Affairs Programming at WNET, had previously been a Senior Program Officer at NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities). She taught Adato how to write an application for NEH funding. This proposal, which set Sandburg in the context of his times and presented the impact of his writing on American culture, was successful in winning substantial NEH funding. Throughout her career, this training would pay off. The NEH would grant major funding to five other Adato documentaries.
Adato conceived of an original narrative device to drive the story. She chose the actor John Cullum to play Carl Sandburg. In the opening scene of Carl Sandburg: Echoes and Silences (WNET 1982), Cullum is rehearsing a scene in which he plays Sandburg giving one of his lecture/monologues. Suddenly, Cullum stops and tells Adato and the film’s writer, Paul Shyre, that he doesn’t really understand Sandburg’s character. Adato and Shyre decide that Cullum must travel to Sandburg’s home in North Carolina and to his birthplace in Galesburg, Ohio to discover the man he’s playing. The scene appears to be spontaneous. Actually, Adato explains, “It was partly the way it happened and partly the way we created it. I mean we were not doing cinema verite. But the idea came to me because cinema verite was so hot at that time.” [lvii] Cullum played a dual role, doing all the interviews on location as well as playing Sandburg in scenes that dramatize key episodes in his youth.
The closing sequence was Cullum performing the Sandburg Lecture/Monologues before a live audience at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The Sandburg film brought Adato one her rare lapses in research. She tells the story with relish. As Sandburg himself did in travels across America, Cullum was to sing American folk songs and play the guitar. Cullum had starred in the Broadway musicalShenandoah, which featured folk songs and folk music s o Adato assumed that he played the guitar. “So we’re all getting ready and John is ready to go on and we hand him the guitar. And he looks at it and he says, ‘What do you want me to do with this?’ I said, ‘what do I want you to do? You’re going to play it.’ ‘Oh, he said, ‘I don’t play the guitar.’ I said, ‘NOW you tell me you don’t play the guitar?’ He said, ‘You never asked me!’” [lviii] The composer of the film’s music, who fortunately happened to be present, ended up playing the guitar off-camera. In the editing, the sleight of hand is barely noticeable except to the musical cognoscenti
The New York Daily News review noted that: “Integrated into this praiseworthy program, which makes generous use of photos, films and prints, are interviews with his friends and family, including daughter Helga Sandburg Crile, plus the one-man show Cullum tours around the country. If one ‘hears America singing’ with Walt Whitman, one feels America singing with Carl Sandburg.” [lix]
Adato’s next film allowed her to stretch her muscles as a director of dramatic sequences even further. Eugene O’Neill: A Glory of Ghosts ( WNET 1986) was funded in part by a generous grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, as was the Sandburg film. Adato decided to dramatize scenes from eight of O’Neill’s plays, representing different stages in his life. The excerpts included ones from The Hairy Ape, Anna Christie, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Iceman Cometh. She attracted a stellar cast. The actors included Jason Robards, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Blythe Danner, Zoe Caldwell, Frances Conroy, Tony Lo Bianco, James Naughton with Jeffrey DeMunn reading O’Neill’s own words. Adato created another unique narrative device. Several actors appeared both as characters in the scenes and were interviewed as actual people in his life. “Eugene O’Neill was the quintessential man of the theater,” Adato says, “The theater was his whole life. So I decided to do it in a very theatrical form.” [lx]
She shot in a small theater at the University of Connecticut in New London. The film opens with the actors sitting around a long table, reading their lines. Later, Frank Converse, playing the critic George Jean Nathan also reads his reviews of O’Neill’s plays. In place of a standard narration, the actors are “helping to tell the story”, Adato explains. [lxi] She wanted to make the dual function of certain of the actors who play “interviewees” very clear to the viewer without having to make it explicit with a narrator. “You don’t want to explain in a film. You want to do it.”[lxii] So she introduced these actors in the dressing room putting on their make-up and saying lines as their characters. Zoe Caldwell for example, playing Carlotta Monterrey, O’Neill’s third wife, says, “He was a black Irishman, a rough, tough, black Irishman. With that smile that made him seem so young. Other times he could be as old as the oldest Oriental. He was only interested in writing his plays. And god, he was so stubborn!” Lower third titles identify each actor and his or her character.
Adato drew again on her experience on the stage in directing the dramatic scenes. “The fact that I had been an actress I think made a great deal of difference…because instinctively you understand things from the actor’s point of view. I had a feel for the theater. I knew when I was getting what I wanted and I knew when I was not getting what I wanted.” [lxiii] Still, with such an illustrious cast she was hesitant to call for changes in their performances. At one point, however, she felt the need to slightly adjust Jason Robard’s performance in a scene from The Iceman Cometh. “Obviously I didn’t have to direct him. But at some point we were in close-up and film is not the same thing (as) the theater. And it was really coming out a little over the top. So I had to get up my courage and say, ‘uh Jason’…and he’s such a wonderful guy, he wasn’t intimidating at all. But still I was nervous. And I said, ‘Jason, you know it’s film and we’re in close-up could you maybe take it down you know just a little?’ And he said, ‘Oh, of course, Perry, I’m such a ham.’ You know that was the way he reacted.”[lxiv]
The New York Times called the two and a half hour program “the best documentary of the year.” Adato won another Directors Guild of America award.
Much as she enjoyed directing drama, Adato never attempted to cross over from documentaries into feature films. Her reason was mainly personal. “I knew that you could be a documentary filmmaker and be married, and be married to the man that I was married to and have two children. You could pull it off. But I knew that if I became a producer or a director of feature films that that was it. I could not do that. I have seen enough examples of what happens to marriages. I didn’t think I could do it and I didn’t want to do it.” [lxv]
Adato was approached by Mara Mayor, Director of the Annenberg/CPB projects, offering partial but generous funding for a documentary series on the history of Western Art for use in colleges and universities. “I was just floored,” Adato remembers. “I mean I’d been doing individual films with the exception of Women in Art . I really had been hands-on. And I had no ambitions to do anything like this.” But Adato thought and realized that as Executive Producer of a series she would not have to travel as much as she did as Producer/Director. She could work out of her WNET office and spend more time at home in Westport, in the house her husband Neil had designed and built. But she was also excited and challenged by the idea of doing this project.
Adato conceived of a 9-part series, with each program divided into two related sections. One or two major works of art would be featured in each section. The series, Art of the Western World (1989) was co-produced by WNET and by a British company and other broadcasters. Adato herself directed one program on Romanesque and Gothic Art: A White Garment of Churches (WNET 1989). This time, because of the film’s broad scope and because it was intended for universities and educational as well as television broadcast, Adato was compelled to use narration and a host. Adato chose British historian Michael Wood as the host of the series. Adato is pleased with the outcome. “It was a big success and got a marvelous notice in the New York Times which wrote: ‘In television terms, a work of art.’ And those films are still being shown on television and in schools every day,”Adato adds. [lxvi]
After nine hours on Western art, Adato felt that she should do a series or, at a minimum, three programs on Asian Art. She wrote a proposal and got R&D funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The new head of WNET programming at that time rejected the idea of doing even a three-part series. Adato was told to do one 90-minute film on Asian art. She told the executive that she didn’t want to do that. “I opened my big mouth and I said, ‘Well if you can’t do it, I can find somebody who will be interested in doing it!’ He said ‘Fine!’ The next thing I know I was fired after thirty years in public television and WNET.” [lxvii]
Adato did find someone else to work with – Alvin H. Perlmutter, whom she had known at NET, now had his own production business which included the non-profit Independent Production Fund. Perlmutter was Executive Producer on Great Tales of Asian Art (1996) with Adato as Producer/Director. Adato’s idea was to present each culture through iconic stories represented in its art, such as India’s lyrical poem the Gita Govinda, Japan’s beloved novel The Tale of Genji and the Ramayana , the Sanskrit epic as adopted and performed in Indonesia. Perlmutter says: “what I found was most interesting about Perry’s approach to art was not that she was doing, as so many art programs do, telling a viewer, this is good art, or this is something you should appreciate. I don’t think she ever did that. What she did was to frame it thematically, through storytelling and made us enjoy it and get engaged with it without telling us what to like and what not to like. I felt that her conceptualizing of art was very much unique to Perry Miller Adato.” [lxviii] The program aired as a 90-minute special. Adato was not able to raise the money to do the full series she had envisioned.
Adato was now an independent producer, but her next project came to her soon. Back in 1980, Georgia O’Keeffe, who had liked the film Adato had done about her, suggested that Adato work on a film about Alfred Stieglitz, O’ Keeffe’s husband, the renowned photographer and gallery owner. Adato shot an extensive interview with O’Keeffe about Stieglitz but at that time, the project did not get off the ground. By the late ’90’s, however, Susan Lacy, Executive Producer of the WNET series American Masters suggested to Adato that the time had come to do the film on Stieglitz. Adato actually found the original negative of the 1980 interview with O’Keeffe and the project was off and away. Adato got major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Endowment for the Arts and other funders. Muriel Soenens, now a Producer/Director, was originally the Associate Producer on Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (American Masters, WNET 2011). She soon experienced Adato’s high standards for research. “I was sent to the Beinecke Library in search of something that in Perry’s typical precision, she said, ‘ I want you to find a picture of Stieglitz…you know he’s got his hat…his suit. He’s facing left.’ I thought, okay whatever. I’d never done archives. They came out with hundreds upon hundreds of boxes.
“I think I probably came back with Stieglitz facing right instead of left and she was like, ‘no dear you must take the Metro North right back up to Beinecke dear, I want the one facing left.’” Adato herself acknowledges, “I think I had a reputation as being kind of tough. And I’m not the only one. There are other producer-directors who have a reputation of being kind of tough also. I expected a lot. But as the years went by I think I’ve become much easier and people have enjoyed more working with me.” [lxix] “From the day she started the job, Soenens was struck by the dichotomy of Adato’s style as a director.”
. “She was a fireball. You know she seemed gentle and she was extraordinarily generous and gracious and loving, but if I were to compare (her) to a cocktail she’d probably be a Manhattan, you know, there’s the cherry, but there is bourbon in there and it is just riding you. For the next year and a half, she was relentless. “I was amazed by the depth of knowledge that she had.” [lxx]
Stieglitz and his era were, of course, subjects Adato knew well. Stieglitz is considered the father of modern photography. At his famous gallery, 291 Fifth Avenue, that he founded in New York with photographer Edward Steichen, Stieglitz was a chief promoter of modernism in painting. “Stieglitz was the first person to exhibit in America the work of Pablo Picasso and Matisse and Brancusi. He did the first modern art exhibitions in America.” [lxxi] “Stieglitz’s struggle was for the world to acknowledge that photography was an art form,” Adato says. [lxxii] With her intimate knowledge of her subject, Adato decided that this time she would write the script herself. “I had written two films before. But I had worked several times with writers who could write dramatically.” She found that she had to teach the dramatic writers how to do the documentary sequences. “You know, it’s very different writing a documentary. I had been teaching these dramatic writers. So maybe I could write a documentary myself.”[lxxiii]
For Muriel Soenens, the Stieglitz film was a great learning experience. “Perry is an absolute mentor because…she is both a person and a filmmaker and she brings her warmth and her ability to remember that you are a human being with a life. It has to do with the experience of working with people. Part of being able to continue to think creatively…is to have someone who opens your mind, who opens your heart. And she in that sense is the most holistic mentor that I’ve ever come across.” [lxxiv] In appreciation for the quality of her work, Adato gave Soenens Co-Producer credit on the film.
Catherine Tatge also learned from Adato’s singular personal style as a Director/Producer. “Perry was completely a role model. It was very difficult for women to go from Associate Producer to producing or even to directing. And Perry, I think partly because of her personality was able to really break through that and I think she did it with a lot of style.” [lxxv] Kris Liem, who edited the Stieglitz film says: “I guess I was surprised by this woman. She’s a tough taskmaster and she’s ambitious. I think you have to be a little steely. And she is all those things, but she’s also kind of girly. I mean she likes to have her makeup, she likes to get her hair done, she always dresses beautifully, lovely scarves and put together.” [lxxvi] Soenens remembers that Adato told her: “It’s not easy making it ahead as a woman. You have to retain that side of you that is feminine.’ Some other women of her generation,” Soenens says, “who I’ve worked with felt that they had to squash their feminine side to make it in the business. And she believed that was quite the contrary.” [lxxvii]
Adato remained in the Georgia O’Keeffe axis after Stieglitz. She was asked to do a short film about O’Keeffe to be shown in the new O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Adato did the project as an independent producer, forming her own small company, The Eloquent Image, LLC. The short 14-minute piece, entitled Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art which uses some of Adato’s interviews with O’Keeffe, new landscape footage, and paintings filmed in the O’Keeffe Museum is an introductory film to the museum’s O’Keeffe collection. It was selected to be shown at the Montreal International Film Festival, an unusual honor for this genre of film.
The next project was the realization of a dream. “Certain kinds of films have to come out of love. I had been wanting to make Paris: The Luminous Years: Toward the Making of the Modern ( I even had the title), for years.” [lxxviii] She had first proposed the idea of a film telling the story of Paris from 1905 to 1930 back in the late ‘60’s when she was at NET. The project evolved then into the Gertrude Stein film. She continued to think about it as she worked on Stein and later on the Picasso film. She made long lists of all the creative artists and writers working during that period in Paris. “What happened in Paris came out of the fact that it was so international. Paris was a magnet. If you were creative, if you felt that you had something that had to be expressed, you just had to go to Paris at that time.” Adato’s thesis was that Paris was a mecca for “the makers of the modern.” She says the film was always in the back of her mind over the years, even as she pursued other projects. Finally, the idea born in the 20 th century came to fruition in the 21 st . She approached Tamara Robinson, who was for many years Vice President and Director of Programming at WNET. Robinson loved the idea and the project eventually received major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and private Foundations.
“People have done dozens of films about Paris,” Adato points out, “but nobody had looked at it from the point of view of Paris– Paris as a catalyst, the place that made things happen or allowed things to happen. And what it really was the interaction of people.” [lxxix] The film would trace that interaction–between painters like Picasso, Braque, Miro and Matisse–among writers–Stein, Guilaume Apollinaire, Hemingway, and Janet Flanner. And there was the Ballet Russes founded by Diaghilev where the arts of dance, music and painting came together in a new way. Adato needed to be a choreographer herself, bringing all the strands together. Lynn Garafola, a dance historian and Professor of Dance at Barnard College, was interviewed for the film. Adato approached her as an expert, in particular on the Ballet Russes. “In some measure she saw the Ballet Russes, this company of Russian dancers that the impresario Serge Diaghilev brought from Russia in 1909 to Paris …as kind of emblematic of this larger world where all these artists came together.” [lxxx] The company had music by Stravinsky, and painters including Picasso doing the scenery. Garafola had respect for Adato as a filmmaker from the day they met: “I was impressed with her right away. She was very open to a lot of ideas, that she was also very cultured. This is a woman who knew music, who knew the visual arts, who knew enough about dance to know that she didn’t know something. It was clear she had a long-time love affair with Paris both as an intellectual project as well an artistic one.” [lxxxi]
Some of the NEH consultants who evaluate funding felt Adato’s original proposal was overemphasizing the role of Paris in the evolution of modernism and argued that such a film should be focused on what was happening in other European countries as well. Adato made some alterations in the next script draft. But she did not sway from her original concept. Garafola says: “She just went her own way. She managed to impose her own vision. It sort of emphasized to me to what extent Perry was not an academic. And I say that in the best sense of the word. Because academics have a sense of what a field should be, what the latest research is, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect interest of a broader public. Perry had a certain story to tell and it was deeply personal for her and it was a story she felt still had resonance for her audience.” [lxxxii]
Editor Kris Liem agrees that Adato remains very much the entertainer: “I think her films are set apart by not being dry and scholarly. But even more than that, I think it’s because of what she brings to it, because she has a true love of the work, the creative process. To sit in the edit room with Perry while we’re looking at a painting on the screen…she may have seen this painting time and again, and yet she looks at it, really looks at it again and starts appreciating the artwork. It’s always fresh.” [lxxxiii] On Paris the Luminous Years, the camera moves over stills were mostly done by computer in the edit room, not on an animation stand as was done in the past. Liem says Adato had some trouble adjusting to the new technology at first: “She has to tell me where in the picture she wants to see…and couldn’t see it herself because it was in the computer. Eventually I think that she really got into it because we could get so much closer with these beautifully scanned images in full HD. You know then she was just aghast at how beautiful it was.” [lxxxiv]
Lynn Garafola says: “I loved the way she was able to do some of the montage. The way there would be these visual images and especially the use of music. For me that was very much like a ballet, in many ways, because one could really sense her perfectionism in the choice of images, how the camera lingered over the images and then the role that music played in all this.” [lxxxv] Adato has always been very involved in the editing process. “The editing is really where the film happens. And the choices that you make in the editing room is what really makes or breaks the film.” [lxxxvi] Tamara Robinson says: “You begin to realize from frame one that this is an incredible body of work. And numerous people and events collapsing on each other. How are you going to do that in two hours? But she pulls it off…it’s like a beautiful work of art, her film is.” [lxxxvii]
For Adato, the film was special. “Somebody in publicizing the film said something about Paris being a culmination. I think that it is a fulfillment of something…that I wanted to do for years and I do love the film.” [lxxxviii]
Statements praising the two-hour film came from many filmmakers and other well-known people. One was from Ken Burns who said: “Amid the cafes and salons of early 20 th century Paris, the future of the art world is born anew in this remarkable journey of inspiration and friendships.” Andre Bishop, Artistic Director of the Lincoln Center Theater wrote: “Beautifully shot, researched, narrated and edited. It is a lovely, lovely film. “The Philadelphia Inquirer gave it a rave review, saying: “A scintillating documentary emerges from the cacophony of reruns and reality TV… Paris The Luminous Years-The Making of the Modern looks carefully and insightfully at a key crossroads in the history of art… Paris The Luminous Years is luminous in itself, a fascinating look that will leave almost everyone who watches it with a better understanding and appreciation of modern art than they had before they started.” [lxxxix] The San Francisco Chronicle review said: “Although early 20 th century Paris may seem like an especially well-trod patch of cultural history, Perry Miller Adato’s documentary….begs to differ. And long before its tightly packed two hours are up…you’ll be forced to agree.” [xc] A piece in the Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York section called Adato “one of the great documentarians in the history of cinema, a prize-winning pioneer of historical and biographical television.” [xci]
Adato’s films stand, in many cases, as historical records, rather like books that are definitive treatments of their subjects. They will endure for the depth of the research and for the innovative narrative and visual techniques that Adato used. Tamara Robinson believes: “There’s certain people that she’s done films on that nobody should even try to do them again because she’s done it. Her legacy has been to bring the works of art of people like Gertrude Stein and a whole body of work from Asia and western art to a broad public. I think students and people who are interested in the arts will draw upon her work for many, many years in colleges and museums.” [xcii] The Montreal Festival of Films on Arts has shown virtually all of Adato’s Films. It also presented her with a Lifetime Achievement award. Nadine Covert, consultant to the Festival said that the award was in honor of her importance as a creator of these film documents about art and artists.
Adato’s legacy is also interwoven with that of public television itself. Jac Venza links the meaning of Adato’s work to the history of her medium: “If we did not have public television, there would be no programs about artists in America. The networks’ were relieved that public television was there, because now they had excuses, saying, ‘we don’t have to do this. This is a public television thing.’ So Perry was here when we built this new area of programming. She was one of the people who created the best in fine arts films.” [xciii] “She was certainly a pioneer in terms of the visual arts,” says Tamara Robinson. “ I keep describing her as America’s premier filmmaker in this area. And I think her body of work proves that. She’s also a pioneer in terms of women working in film and television. There weren’t so many women who were able to do the kind of work that Perry has been doing for these many years.” [xciv] Adato’s achievement certainly rivals that of any American documentary filmmaker, man or woman. Nadine Covert underlines the fact that “she is one of the very few American filmmakers who have specialized in films about the arts. She really started this genre of the arts biography and her films are really important documents about these artists.” [xcv]
There is a sense in which Adato defies definition as a filmmaker. She mixed documentary sequences with dramatic scenes. She went beyond traditional formats, seeking new ways to tell a story. George Stoney, filmmaker and Professor of Film and Cinema Studies at NYU says: “My tendency is not to divide people into dramatic films and documentary films and art films and so forth and so on. She’s a real filmmaker because she knows how to reach an audience and she knows how to tell a story. My definition of the documentary film comes from Grierson, who calls it the creative interpretation of reality. Well, this is Perry.” [xcvi] Stoney argues that Adato never put a single stylistic stamp on her work, never used the credit “A Film By.” But others who know Adato’s films do find a distinctive quality. Lynn Garafola says: “Ultimately, it’s her own voice that she’s imposing and that she wants to be heard. She has shaped her own particular idea of what her subject is. Even though her work has an historical dimension, she’s trying to convey also something about how she responds to the artworks and the world that created them. And that I think is the more subjective quality that sets her work apart, that she’s not afraid of being a subjective filmmaker.” [xcvii] Jac Venza agrees: “It’s a very solitary point of view and that is very unusual about her films. And that I think had to do with the very personal stamp about her look and her sense of values of what things were important to include in the story and what were not.” [xcviii] Tamara Robinson adds: “I think in many ways she has been ahead of her time, not only in terms of the work she’s done but certainly given so many changes within public television and I say that in terms of the financing of public television. She’s been a crusader for the kind of work that is important to her. And public television is lucky to have had Perry Miller Adato.” [xcix]
In the last decade of her life, Perry Miller Adato’s passion for her art never waned, and she continued to lead a rich professional and personal life into her late 90s. In addition to completing her Paris film, she had numerous speaking engagements and film showings across the U.S. An archive of her films and related materials was created—including a two-hour biographical film essay entitled Perry Miller Adato: A Life In Film —and accepted into the Library of Congress and Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles. See Film Collection. She had two grandchildren, Alexander Aaron Adato Horowitz and Sophia Perry Adato Horowitz, who lit up her life through her later years. Her deep romance with her husband Neil lasted for 62 years of marriage before he passed away at 96 years. Her close and loving relationship with her daughters, sons-in-law, and extended family and friends gave her tremendous joy. Her intellect and wit were still sharp through her last days until she passed away in her home at age 97.
Adato speaks of good fortune in reflecting on her own story. “It’s been a very fulfilling, wonderful life. And I feel I’m very lucky.” Of course, her gifts as an artist and her drive to excel played parts in her achievement in both the professional and personal aspects of her life. “I was trying to do it all,” Adato says, “It was only just a few years ago that I realized that you can’t win them all. You try to do your best.” Although she believed this, she expressed often how lucky she’d been, saying “I really had it all – I did work that I loved, had a wonderful marriage, and marvelous children and grandchildren.” She will be remembered for both her pioneering and extraordinary career and the tremendous amount of love, humor, understanding, and intelligence she shared with all her who knew her.
Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[vii] Interview, Kris Liem, September 2011
[viii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[x] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xi] Interview, George Stoney, September 2011
[xii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xiii] Interview, Kris Liem, September 2011
[xiv] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xxiii] Interview, Jac Venza, September 2011.
[xxiv] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xxvii] Interview, Jac Venza, September 2011
[xxviii] [xxviii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xxxii] Interview, Jac Venza, September 2011
[xxxiii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xxxiv] Interview Alvin H. Perlmutter, September 2011.
[xxxv] Interview, Jac Venza, September 2011
[xxxvi] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xlii] Interview, Catherine Tatge, September 2011
[xliv] Interview, Nadine Covert, September 2011
[xlvii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[xlviii] Interview, Catherine Tatge, September 2011
[l] Interview, Kris Liem, September 2011
[liii] Grace Glueck, The New York Times , May 30, 1980
[lviii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[lix] Kay Gardella, New York Daily News, 1982
[lx] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[lxviii] Interview, Alvin H. Perlmutter, September 2011
[lxix] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011.
[lxxi] Interview Perry Miller Adato, September 2011.
[lxxiv] Interview, Muriel Soenens, September 2011
[lxxv] Interview, Catherine Tatge, September 2011
[lxxvi] Interview, Kris Liem, September 2011
[lxxvii] Interview, Muriel Soenens, September 2011
[lxxviii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[lxxx] Interview, Lynn Garfola, September 2011
[lxxxiii] Interview, Kris Liem, September 2011
[lxxxv] Interview Lynn Garafola, September 2011
[lxxxvi] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, Sepember 2011
[lxxxvii] Interview, Tamara Robinson, September 2011
[lxxxviii] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, September 2011
[lxxxix] Jonathan Storm, The Philadelphia Inquirer , December 14 th , 2010
[xc] David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle, December 27 th , 2010.
[xci] Vibhuti Patel, The Wall Street Journal/Greater NY section, December 15 th , 2010.
[xcii] Interview, Tamara Robinson, September 2011.
[xciii] Interview, Nadine Covert, September 2011
[xciv] Interview, Tamara Robinson, September 2011
[xcvi] Interview, George Stoney, September 2011
[xcvii] Interview, Lynn Garafola, September 2011
[xcviii] Interview, Jac Venza, September 2011
[xcix] Interview, Tamara Robinson, September 2011
[c] Interview, Perry Miller Adato, Fall 2011