By Gregory Crofton
Robert Drew worked with Time Life in the early 1960s to invent a documentary form known as direct cinema or cinéma vérité. Ten largely unseen films from Drew Associates are now available to stream from the SundanceNow Doc Club. “JANE” is one of them.
No sit-down interviews. Just follow the action, follow life, with a camera and microphone able to capture sound and synch it with film. Before Drew became a filmmaker, he served as a fighter pilot in WWII. While overseas he developed a friendship with Ernie Pyle, a print war correspondent known for giving readers a sense of “being there.” It was Pyle’s style that Drew aimed to emulate with a camera.
Once he was back home, Drew used Time-Life money to build a mobile camera and microphone setup, then enlisted filmmakers, who would eventually go on to do their own great work, including Richard Leacock (A STRAVINSKY PORTRAIT), D.A. Pennebaker (DON’T LOOK BACK), Albert Maysles (GREY GARDENS) to shoot the films. Drew captured invaluable historical footage in such films as JANE, PRIMARY and THE CHAIR, among many others, and reinvented cinema by making “the studio” mobile.
In JANE, Jane Fonda, 25, struggles to escape the shadow of her famous father, actor Henry Fonda, and succeed on Broadway. But in 1962, the chance of finding success there was slim, much like it is today.
“Yeah, that’s right I’m Henry’s daughter, but I’ve worked just as hard as you if not harder,” says Fonda, while applying makeup to her thigh before a dress rehearsal for “The Fun Couple,” the play, a lifeless comedy, she’s set to star in.
Drew and his crew follow the production on the road to New Haven, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Wilmington, but it falls flat with critics and rewrites ensue. Lee Strasberg, a well-known teacher of theatre and founder of the Actors Studio, offers his opinion after the show in Philly. “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so much material looking for a play,” he says.
What’s most striking about JANE is the access it provides and how many angles from which it covers the story. “The Fun Couple” is a stinker and Pennebaker and Leacock are there ready in the lobby to catch shots of patrons walking out during the second act. You also meet the most powerful theatre critic of his day, Walter Kerr, outside his stately suburban home, and take a car ride with him into the city to review Fonda’s play.
A camera follows Kerr as he enters the main hall of the Lyceum Theatre. It’s a breathtaking shot, similar to a famous one that Albert Maysles took of John F. Kennedy walking through the crowded floor of the Democratic National Convention for Drew’s PRIMARY (1960). Later Kerr is in his office at the New York Herald pounding away on his typewriter, putting together a devastating critique of the play, apparently one of the top five worst productions he’s ever seen.
“I don’t think they dug it,” says Fonda after coming back to her dressing room between acts. Her boyfriend and director of the play, Andréas Voutsinas, shrugs off her comment with a glassy-eyed stare and lights a cigarette. The play was shut down after three performances, but JANE, the resulting documentary, is a black-and-white treasure.