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One of the most unorthodox documentaries ever made, Albert and David Maysles' fascinating Grey Gardens (1975) studies a pair of ladies so unusual that normal filmic rules don't apply. Grey Gardens is the name of a dilapidated mansion on the beach in Long Island's East Hampton, a community of vastly wealthy 'old money' folk. The two women who live there are Edith Ewing Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale. 'Big Edie' is 79 and 'Little Edie' is in her late '50s. Closely related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, they once circulated at the top of society, as part of a wealthy elite that associated only with people from 'good families.' But Edies 1 and 2 stayed fickle and independent. Little Edie never married, despite being a great beauty and attracting proposals from suitors with names like Getty.
Left behind in the rush of time and alienated from most of their wealthy relatives, the two women live in reduced circumstances, isolated in a rotting house inhabited by cats and some particularly destructive raccoons. They made scandal-sheet news when the locals tried to have the house condemned as a health hazard. The garbage has been cleaned up but the place still looks like a ghost mansion. A family member stepped in to pay the property taxes, and they're living on a meager stipend.
The strong-willed, garrulous ladies have gone far beyond the boundaries of mere eccentricity. The filmmakers have only to show up and the 'Little Edie Show' begins. She appears on the rotting porch with a big smile, in yet another bizarre choice of clothing. Little Edie's speech indicates good breeding and impeccable manners. She whispers, "I've no makeup on" as if making an intimate confession; she's only seen in makeup once or twice. Little Edie parades and poses as if getting the big audition she never had.
At first the setup seems decidedly unhealthy, with both women living an isolated, fantasy existence. As good hostesses, they pause frequently to entertain the filmmakers with a favorite tune or two. Big Edie had training as a singer; when she wants to be a bully she complains that her daughter can't sing a note. The bickering pair reminds us of the delusional women in the Hollywood Gothic pictures Sunset Blvd. and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Little Edie adores the attention of the camera, and flirts openly with the filmmakers.
We soon realize that the Beales' behavior is not a charade -- we're seeing their real personalities. The overweight Big Edie likes to sit wearing just a towel. She writes the checks and considers herself the lady in charge. Little Edie complains that her mother is too interested in Jerry Torre, the young handyman who works on the house and drops by most every day. They privately refer to him as "The Marble Faun." Big Edie's fixation on Jerry is one of many issues that haunt the ladies' light taunts and serious arguments. Little Edie claims that her life was spoiled because of rules imposed by her parents. Her various suitors were bid unwelcome, while mother invited her own men -- voice coaches, artists -- to live in the house even if Little Edie didn't like them. Big Edie counters with the charge that she always let Little Edie do whatever she wanted.
Much of their existence is spent dwelling on the past. In old photo albums both women emerge as youthful beauties. Little Edie bears a resemblance to Jackie Kennedy, but with a even friendlier sparkle in her eye. The photos carry an aura of privilege and superiority -- had things been different Little Edie could easily have been another blue blood movie star, like Gene Tierney. Just to upstage her daughter, Big Edie bursts into song now and then, recalling lyrics from "You and the Night and the Music" and "Night and Day". She coaches Edie's 'performances' of "Tea for Two" and "People Will Say We're in Love" only to follow up with cruel criticism. The most overt "Baby Jane Hudson" moments come when Little Edie performs her dances, each of which requires a costume change. Flashing a big smile, she's clearly flirting with the cameraman. The behavior is almost infantile, but also completely liberated. Little Edie is being herself.
Other things just fall under the category of weird. Little Edie uses a pair of binoculars to read her weight on the scale: "145 pounds!" She checks her astrology notices, assessing her compatibility with Albert or David's sign of the Zodiac. At a painfully tacky dinner party, the surprised guests drink out of Dixie Cups and are invited to sit on newspaper because the chairs are dirty. Edith does say that she swept the floor for the occasion.
Grey Gardens is too insightful to be a mere freak show about the decadent rich. The Beales have gravitated together out of need and a lack of options, and they (dys)function as a loving couple, arguments and all. We're all creatures of habit, and what we're seeing is an extreme case of women forced to live outside "the manner to which they were accustomed." Little Edie is bright and optimistic; she behaves as if the long-gone servants will surely show up to put their glorious former way of life back in order. Yet she's not ashamed of their present circumstances, as they are still Quality People. When showing a photo of herself at twenty, looking ready for Vogue magazine, Little Edie assures us that, "It was taken by a fine photographer, who was in the Social Register."
As for Big Edie, she has a good attitude despite being beyond any hope of a glamorous recovery. When she pokes fun at her daughter, we don't perceive any real malice at work. Big Edie lounges about with a towel wrapped around her chest, sings her favorite songs and enjoys Jerry's company. When told that she isn't properly dressed, Big Edie just answers, "I don't care. Watch out or I'll be going naked." Who's not well adjusted?
Criterion's Blu-ray of Grey Gardens is the label's second or third release of this entertaining documentary delight. The new transfer was taken from the 16mm A and B rolls. Sufficient technology has been applied to optimize the color, eliminate jitter and flaws, and bring out the richness of the remarkably clear location audio.
The disc's special features communicate the affection felt by many for the film, and its place of pride among the Maysles' many experimental documentaries. Most of the extras were put together in 2006, many years after David passed away. Albert shares a commentary with associate producer Susan Froemke, joined by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer. The women spent months in the editing room analysing the Beales and debating how they should be presented. There was no "story" to tell, just the unfolding of these remarkable extrovert personalities. They report that the Maysles brothers would return every night to say, "that was the best day of filming so far." The editorial process was such a major part of the film that Hovde and Meyer were given co-director credit.
A special extra is the entire follow-up feature The Beales of Grey Gardens, assembled in 2006 from footage not used in the original. It's almost as good. We see a lot more of the ladies reacting to and interacting with the filmmakers, which Albert and David tried to not to use the first time around. New footage goes deeper into Big Edie's infatuation with Jerry, and Little Edie's major crush on David Maysles. She compares him to Valentino and Gatsby, and coyly suggests that one or both brothers take her away. It's good that the filmmakers happen to show up on one particular morning, as they arrive just in time to put out a potentially disastrous fire. Mother and daughter are quite pleased to have the handsome emergency crew in the house. Big Edie asks, "Did you thrill the firemen with that skirt? You used "Jacqueline's $300 blanket to put the fire out." The raccoons move in where fire axes have broken a big hole in the wall.
A 2006 interview piece with Albert contains new footage with Jerry Torre, who has become a NYC cabdriver. Little Edie sits for a forty-minute audio interview from 1976. New York fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett appear in separate interviews expressing their love for Grey Gardens and affirming the influence on their careers of Little Edie's eclectic fashion sense.
Three photo galleries include one documenting the various animals roaming the Beale mansion. Critic Hilton Als provides the essay for the folding disc insert. A fictional TV movie about the filming of Grey Gardens, given the same title, was released in 2009. It starred Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
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Grey Gardens Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.