I could just about cry. DA Pennebaker, the legendary filmmaker and my friend, has been chosen to receive an honorary Oscar. He’s the first documentary filmmaker to win a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. He’s among four industry insiders who will get one including Jeffrey Katzenberg (for his incredible charity work), Hal Needham and George Stevens. No actors were chosen this year– no Doris Day or other icon. But Pennebaker– is a big, big deal. With a handful of other men he invented Cinema Verite, which is now, sadly, perverted into reality TV and “documentary” type shows.
But Pennebaker’s work with Ricky Leacock and Al and David Maysles and a few others invented the kind of fly on the wall filmmaking this is alternately thought of as cinema verite or just documentary. Also for the last 30 years he’s been working with his wife, the award winning filmmaker Chris Hegedus. All together his films range from “Dont Look Back” and “Monterey Pop”– the two best and most important music films of the 60s — to “The War Room” (Oscar nominee about the 1992 Clinton campaign), and a film I was lucky to make with them in 2002 called “Only the Strong Survive.”
It was Pennebaker’s early work, and his access to political figures like Robert Kennedy, that put him on the map. Pennebaker et al made fly-on-the-wall films at the Kennedy White House, and on the campaign trail, that created a whole world that didn’t exist before. Pennebaker, who’s 86 and has eight children, is also a huge music fan–mostly jazz and Broadway, and soul. He (with and without Chris) has made films about Elaine Stritch, Depeche Mode, and Chuck Berry and Little Richard among others. His filming of the recording of the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Company,” is almost what made Sondheim, Stritch and everyone else involved. It’s a classic.
And then there are the collaborations. With Frazer Pennebaker, Wendy Ettinger, and RJ Cutler, Chris and Penny (as he is known) made “The War Room.” I was lucky enough to do “Only the Strong Survive” with them. They made “Startup.com”–and Chris won the Directors Guild of America prize with Jehane Noujaim. And the Pennebakers made “Down from the Mountain,” a concert film from “O Brother Where Art Thou?” with the Coen Brothers in Nashville.
Since the announcement came down at 2am Eastern, I haven’t been able to speak to Penny. But I know he’s thinking of Leacock, his best pal, who passed away last year (he was in his 90s). And Maysles and a bunch of other people. If any film minded publisher is interested. Penny was interviewed for the Columbia University oral history project some time ago. A big, funny manuscript of anecdotes exists, and has just been gathering dust. It takes in 60 years of filmmaking by what is now an Oscar winning legend. And a much deserved one at that. Congratulations!
The Lifetime Achievement Oscars are handed out at a special dinner in Hollywood in November. The Motion Picture Academy is batting a thousand so far this year with announcements!
PS Kudos also to Frazer Pennebaker, eldest son of the clan, who is well known behind the scenes as producer of the Pennebaker Hegedus Films and the guy who makes the trains run on time. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.