Perry Miller Adato is an extraordinary documentary filmmaker whose métier is art and the creative process. Each of her beautifully crafted film biographies (on such innovators as Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Carl Sandburg, and Eugene O’Neill) takes us on a journey—filling in the blanks, offering insights heretofore uncovered, and enhancing our knowledge and appreciation of a particular artist’s life and work in the way that only a good film can. Adato, who won an Emmy Award in 1968 for her initial directorial effort (Dylan Thomas: The World I Breathe) and four Directors Guild of America Awards for her subsequent work, pioneered the innovative use of still photos in film biography, paving the way for Ken Burns and everyone else who followed. She is renowned for conducting incisive interviews with “witnesses” (relatives and colleagues of her film subjects) that get to the heart of what made a particular person tick—and for doggedly tracking down the rare film footage, recordings, pictures, and correspondence that add such rich background details to her biographical stories. Each film “has to arise from the style and the personality of the artist,” says Adato. “I’m not interested in education, per se, but there needn’t be a conflict between something that is entertaining and educational. You can take any subject in the world and make it fascinating, if it’s done poetically, artistically and with relevance to peoples’ lives today.”
She was born Lillian Perry Miller in Yonkers, New York. By the age of ten she wanted to be an actress, and during high school she was a contestant on Major Bowes’s popular radio program, The Original Amateur Hour. Her impersonation of Luise Rainer playing the French actress Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld duly impressed Major Bowes, who awarded her first-place honors: an audition and appearance on a radio soap opera.
She moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan when she was eighteen and, as a fledgling actress, worked for the Theatre Guild on Broadway and also appeared off-Broadway and on radio and television shows. Burning with a newly acquired social awareness, she abandoned a burgeoning career as an actress: She hoped to "change the world" through a newfound knowledge of and love for documentary films and her discovery of the potential of 16 mm film to reach new audiences. As Adato told Ms. Magazine in June 1976, “I created a field for myself”—a career as one of the first film consultants, encouraging organizations to use 16 mm films as educational implements; in addition she put together a catalog of social-action films. Then “when the United Nations was looking for someone to compile an international catalog of social welfare films, I got the job easily. There wasn’t much competition,” she recalled. After the catalog project was completed, she traveled around Europe for ten months, seeking out all kinds of documentary films at festivals, art houses, and archives. Excited by the quantity and quality of what she saw, she determined to set up a center for European documentaries and films on art in New York.
With the help of the famous documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, she founded the Film Advisory Center in Manhattan. The center introduced the films of Jacques Cousteau—as well as many distinguished European documentaries on art—to America. In early 1954, CBS’s Omnibus series jumped at the chance to air Cousteau’s short film, Undersea Archaeology, about the search for artifacts in the remains of a Greek ship that sank more than two thousand years ago. Later that year Perry Miller, as she was then known (she added her husband Neil Adato’s surname a few years later), went to work for CBS at the invitation of the documentary producer and director Perry Wolff. She traveled, courtesy of her employer, to Europe, where she continued to track down interesting films that could be used “as a means of communicating ideas” to the American public.
A decade later, in 1964, she took a job at National Educational Television (NET)—the predecessor to PBS—initially as a film researcher, gradually working her way up to a dual capacity as a producer/director. Although a number of friends and associates had been after her for years to direct a film, she resisted: “I loved my work and besides, I couldn’t spend the long hours in the cutting room required of a director without neglecting my family.” (The Adatos by then were the parents of two young daughters, Laurie and Michelle.) Still, it would appear she was fated to become a director. As she later described it, she began directing films partly for pragmatic reasons: “We didn't have the money to hire anyone else.” But as it turned out, Adato’s extended years of viewing films and observing the techniques of distinguished directors the world over paid off in a big way; she won an Emmy Award in 1968 for the first film she directed, Dylan Thomas: The World I Breathe, which recaptured the vitality of Thomas’s life and legend through film footage, still pictures, interviews, and audio recordings of the poet reading from his works.
Adato’s next biographical remembrance would prove to be one of her most popular (“the one certain people ask me about more often than any other”)—and her personal favorite among all her films. Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me, which premiered on PBS in December 1970, is a glorious evocation of not only the writer and her art collection (“no American expatriate had a shrewder eye for art,” says one of the critics interviewed in the film) but also of the artistic and cultural mise-en-scène in Paris between the wars in which Stein played such a pivotal role. Pablo Picasso, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Thornton Wilder are brought to life through words (heard in voice-overs delivered by actors), photos, and moving images—and the salon she held court at with her friend and secretary Alice B. Toklas is conjured through pictures and quotes from Stein's book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In addition, several cultural icons who were still alive in 1970—Virgil Thomson (the composer with whom Stein collaborated on two landmark operas), Jacques Lipchitz, Janet Flanner, and Bennett Cerf among them—offer testimony to her wit and genius. “She was laying word against word, feeling for the taste, the smell, the rhythm of the individual word,” said playwright Sherwood Anderson of Stein—a passage that might also be used to describe Adato’s evocative, memory-stirring film.
In a 1972 New York Times article on women film directors, Adato credited the women’s movement with opening the professional and psychological gates to female filmmakers and vastly expanding the cinematic subject matter available to them. As for the cutting room that had intimidated her a few years before, it quickly became her favorite work area—the place where the “truly creative work” is done.
In 1973, Adato attended a conference on women and the arts sponsored by the University of Wisconsin. It was there that she met Linda Nochlin, a professor of art history at Vassar. Adato told her she was planning to make a documentary on the life and work of Cezanne. “Very interesting, but why not a film on a woman artist?” Nochlin queried. Adato took Nochlin’s advice to heart and instead made a film on the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. The Cassatt documentary became part of a seven-part television series, The Originals—Women in Art, which also included Adato’s film on Helen Frankenthaler.
In 1977, Adato became the first woman to be honored with the prestigious Directors Guild of America Award for her film Georgia O’Keeffe. She had traveled to Santa Fe and interviewed the reclusive ninety-year-old O’Keeffe at length about her life, her art, and her marriage and artistic collaboration with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (who, in 2001, was the subject of another of Adato’s acclaimed biographical documentaries).
For many years, Adato had wanted to combine documentary and drama. The elements fell neatly into place when she embarked on Carl Sandburg: Echoes and Silences (1982). “I wanted to show parts of his early life that exist in his writings but not on film…about his college days, about flunking out at West Point, about going off to the Spanish-American War. That’s the sort of recollection that works in his own words,” said Adato. She and the writer Paul Shyre got the Tony Award-winning actor John Cullum (a dead ringer for Sandburg) into the proper frame of mind by traveling with him to Sandburg’s birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois, and to his final home in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Cullum is shown visiting with friends and family of Sandburg—at one point in the film he even sings a song with Sandburg’s daughter.
Adato further utilized her hybrid documentary-drama technique in the two-part film Eugene O’Neill: A Glory of Ghosts (1986), in which actors, including Jason Robards, Blythe Danner, and Francis Conroy, portray relatives and friends of O’Neill’s and also act out scenes from his plays including, Anna Christie, The Iceman Cometh, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Adato won her fourth DGA Award for Eugene O’Neill: A Glory of Ghosts (following wins for Georgia O’Keeffe, Picasso: A Painter’s Diary and Carl Sandburg: Echoes and Silences).
One of her most ambitious projects, which aired on PBS in 1989, was Art of the Western World, a major series of nine one-hour programs on the history of art that Adato conceived and executive produced—in addition to writing, producing, and directing one of the episodes, “A White Garment of Churches.”
Her current project is Paris—The Luminous Years, a two-hour film about the unique role played by the City of Light from 1905 to roughly 1930 as a catalytic force in the creation of the modern arts movement. The film, “a dramatic story peopled with characters more vivid than any fiction,” has been dear to Adato’s heart for many years. A fervent Francophile since high school (“I scored 100% on the French regents”), she had originally wanted to make this film about Paris more than three decades ago but was told that the subject matter was “too broad.”
Sometimes it pays to hold on to a dream. Earlier this year Adato received an $800,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for Paris—The Luminous Years, which has finally been green-lighted by PBS. Perry Miller Adato has come full circle. The teenage schoolgirl from Yonkers who won first-place honors for showing off her well-cultivated French accent on a national radio show has finally gotten her wish to introduce millions of American viewers to the lights and sights of Paris during "the luminous years."