THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
In the history of film there have been some characters so distinct and
memorable that they can be remembered outside of the context of the
in which they appeared: Rhett and Scarlett, Rick and Ilsa, Norman,
Travis, Tyler. Little Edie definitely belongs on that list. She's
different in one important way: She is totally real.
The Maysles brothers' fantastic film Grey Gardens is a look at
the lives of little Edie and her mother, big Edie Beale, members of the
Bouvier family and cousins of Jackie O. By the time Grey Gardens
was released, however, they had
fallen so far outside of the society set that their kin inhabited that
they nearly slipped off the world's radar entirely. They briefly made
headlines for a near eviction when their Long Island mansion had fallen
into such a state of disrepair that the authorities stepped in. Only
intervention of Jackie herself saved Grey Gardens from government
seizure. Still, the house that the Maysles' camera records is as
decrepit as it once must have been beautiful. Much like the house, the
Beales are in a slowly progressing state of decay. They have distanced themselves
from the rest of the world and they
are clearly going insane. Instead of living under gloomy clouds, however, they
are extremely energetic, funny, and even charming. Big Edie talks of her days as a
young ingenue singing light romantic
tunes. She even plays some old records of her
performances and sings along, convinced that her voice is still the same. Little Edie,
is a blur, a constantly shape-shifting creature who redefines fashion, language,
attitude, and emotion. It's no wonder that
little Edie has left a lasting impression on many of the people
that have seen the film (several significant fashion designers give video testimonials to
Edie's influence on them in the
disc's supplemental section). Throughout the film she remains an incredibly
sympathetic character, as she
fights, complains, cries, laughs, and dances around her crumbling house, a sweater
wrapped around her head, dressed in her ever changing assortment of
The charm and uniqueness of Edie makes Grey Gardens an absolutely
stunning achievement and
required viewing. The Maysles, while never quite the invisible documentarians,
well enough to stay
out of Edie's way and allow her to create the film herself. She is constantly directing
our attention, to
her clothes, to the house, to her mother, to the raccoons that she feeds in the attic.
Her voice retains the
accent of blue-blooded social grace but she's entered a scene all her own.
When she laments her early retreat
from the glamour of New York City her promises to return there are not quite
convincing. She may hate living alone with
her mother but she clearly loves to hate it.
As a dissection of a mother-daughter relationship, Grey Gardens is
complex. They each have a laundry list of grievances and
their constant exposure to each other has forced everything out into the open. Edie
may tell a story one day for the humor value of it, then tell the exact same story the
next day, in tears, looking for sympathy. They have begun to merge into one person
through the repetitive nature of their hermit-like existence.
Grey Gardens follows the Maysles masterful Gimme
Shelter by five years and is no less skillful, even though the logistical scope
is infinitely smaller. The attention to human detail is what links these films and makes
Grey Gardens, ultimately, so devastating.
The documentary camera work of Grey Gardens consists of mostly grainy,
hand-held takes. There is, however, a tremendous beauty to the compositions,
colors, and textures. The transfer here is amazing given the age and source of the
materials. Truly a stunning job. The film is appropriately full-screen.
The audio is a simple 2.0 mono track that is never unclear, even with the limited
resources available to the filmmakers. English subtitles are also included.
Criterion has included a wonderful selection of extras. One seems to be an easter
egg of sorts: A
very recent telephone conversation (2000 or 2001) between little Edie
and Albert Maysles immediately following the film's closing credits where they
such issues as the Bush-Gore election, Edie's current life in Florida, and the effect
had on each of their lives. Edie, true to form, suggests that she should have snatched
in marriage when they first met. Albert also contributes to a commentary track along
with co-director/editors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, and associate
producer Susan Froemke. It's an interesting and informative track that discusses the
unusual creation of the film.
Excerpts from a 1976 audio interview with little Edie for Interview magazine
should help those going through
Edie withdrawal after the film ends. Interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham
and John Bartlett shed a light on the influence that Edie's singular style had on that
community. Trailers and a collection of hundreds of photos round out the set.
A unique and fascinating film, Grey Gardens covers a lot of ground while
staying entirely within one house. Through the complexity of its subjects and the
subtlety of the filmmakers, it becomes a stunningly beautiful and original viewing
More films by the Maysles brothers:
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org