NOTE: The Criterion Collection released the Maysles Brothers' Grey Gardens on DVD in 2001 and then in 2006 released a two-disc collection that included with their follow up film, The Beales Of Grey Gardens. Now both films arrive on Blu-ray in high definition with what appear to be new transfers and extras identical to those found on the aforementioned two-disc DVD release.
Grey Gardens (1975):
Meet Little Edie and Big Edie Beale, a mother and daughter combo that caught the attention of filmmaking team Albert and David Maysles (the guys behind Gimme Shelter) who decided to make a documentary about them (with some help from Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer). Over the course of some time, the filmmaker's started visiting the two reclusive women who allowed them to bring a film crew and record their conversations. The resulting footage was edited down to a nice one hundred minute package in the form of this documentary.
So who are these strange women? At the time of filming Big Edie was in her eighties, and her daughter little Edie (in her fifties at the time this material was shot) had come home to what was left of the family estate in East Hampton, New York some years before to care for her (though some speculate that it was actually the other way around). The more time they spent together the less time they spent with anyone from the outside world and soon they'd more or less become completely reclusive, relying only on one another and the cats and raccoons that inhabit their run down home for company and social interaction. As such, they're very out of touch with the rest of the world and they sort of inhabit their own universe. Big Edie was once quite a socialite but that was a long time ago and we learn that at one point their home, Grey Gardens, was in such disarray that none other than Jackie O had to intervene to prevent the local government from condemning it.
As the film documents conversations that the filmmakers had with the two starlets, we get a chance to explore this alternate reality that they inhabit. We learn, through their mannerisms and the way in which they interact with one another that there's definitely been a fall from grace that neither one of them is ready to accept. It's also interesting to note that although they bicker at one another constantly, that neither one of them would be as strong as they are without the other. Little Edie seems completely disillusioned with her take on reality from the very start of the film as she sings 'You Oughtta Be In Pictures' for the camera and for Albert. Her wardrobe, which changes constantly, always comprises of scarves that she wraps around her head and decorates with pins or broaches. Her mother seems a little more stable though she does have her moments as well, particularly when she bursts into song and remarks how her voice sounds as good now as it did when she was a young woman. Both women, despite coming across as rather loony, are also quite free spirited and a whole lot of fun. They're very charming, quite polite, and not in the least big cognizant of the impression that they must be giving off.
The Beales Of Grey Gardens (2006):
This recent follow up is a brand new documentary that was put together using footage that was shot for the 1976 picture. It's not really a sequel so much as it is an extension, and it provides more of what made the first movie work: insight into the unusual and complex world of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It doesn't stand as well on its own as the first movie did as some important background information from that film is not repeated here, but even those who haven't had a chance to check out the first picture should be able to follow things easily enough.
Here the Beales touch once again on how Jackie O convinced Aristotle Onassis to donate funds towards fixing up the decrepit old home, and we learn a little more about the backgrounds of the two women. What really makes this one work, however, is the characteristics that Little Edie shows. In the first movie, her strengths and ambitions and her natural bravery were front and center. That's not the case here. This footage shows a weaker side to the otherwise very strong Little Edie, as she constantly views for the attention of the male filmmakers seemingly showing off at almost every given opportunity. Contrasting this is the fact that Big Edie's behavior really doesn't change at all, here she remains as stern and forthright as she was in the earlier film, which of course causes dramatic clashes with her daughter.
Both films are tragic and at the same time endlessly amusing. The two pieces are quite tastefully done and don't appear to be poking fun at the subjects, rather the camera just lets them do their thing. Obviously some editing had to have taken place but this is otherwise quite a good fly-on-the-wall look at how two women dealt with the cards that life dealt them. Little Edie, despite her words, probably never healed from the 'fake divorce' her husband hit her with and she holds on to whatever shred of high society life she can for reasons that are never really fully explained, be they desperation or simple determination. Their lives, like their home, were once luxurious and flamboyant but the years have not been kind to them. The flamboyancy remains but the luxury is long gone, replaced by random cats and reclusive behavior. Big Edie has long since passed on while Little Edie lived into her eighties and apparently moved to Florida after selling the estate once her mother died. A true follow up to her story would have made for an excellent third part to the trilogy, but whether or not she'd have been interested in doing it is debatable (the rumor, and it is a rumor, is that the two women agreed to do the first film for a share of the profits that they never received) and she has since passed away in 2002. The first film has gone on to become a genuine cult classic and even inspired a stage adaptation.
Criterion presents both documentaries in new 2k restorations approved by Albert Maysles framed at 1.33.1 fullframe and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Detail and color reproduction get a big bump up in quality here and on top of that the framing seems to have been opened up a little more resulting in more picture information throughout the movies. The image is still grainy, it should be based on how it was shot and when, but detail is definitely stronger, skin tones more accurate and lifelike and black levels stronger as well. There are no obvious compression artifacts nor are there any instances of noise reduction or edge enhancement to note. The end result is quite film-like, and it feels very true to the source. Contrast is better, it seems more accurate, and this is just a really nice upgrade in every way you'd want it to be and thankfully it manages to do that without messing with the source material's simple, gritty aesthetic.
We get LPCM Mono tracks in English with optional English captioning as far as the audio goes. The audio here is mostly interview clips, these aren't complicated tracks, but the lossless option here gets the job done very nicely. Dialogue stays crisp and clear and free of any major defects and the levels are properly balanced throughout.
First up, for the first film, Criterion ports over the audio commentary by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke that was included on the previous releases. This is an interesting talk that sheds some light on how the project came together, what it was like working with the two ladies, and about what Little Edie did once her mother had passed away. It's also interesting to hear Albert talk about the response that the two Beales had to the film once they saw the finished product. What shines through here is that Albert really loved the two ladies. Some could argue that the film takes advantage of them but here he comes across as someone who genuinely cared about the two subjects rather than someone out looking to profit off of their eccentricities.
Also carried over from the first issue are some video interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett who speak about the influence that the Beales had on the fashion industry and how they continue to be influential even now, decades after the movie was originally shot. Up next are some really interesting sound bites (eleven of them in total) from a recorded audio interview with Little Edie Beale conducted by Kathryn G. Graham for Interview Magazine in April of 1976. Little Edie talks about politics, fashion, the importance of a proper education and more as she's as interesting here as she is in the feature film. Additionally we get a video introduction from Albert Maysles where he explains why they went back to the original material to make a second film. Rounding out the extras is a massive still gallery of behind the scenes photographs from the shoot and other assorted ephemera, a trailer and a TV spot for the film, and some filmographies and of course we get menus and chapter stops. Inside the keepcase is a booklet of liner notes featuring an essay by critic Michael Musto that explains the cultural significance of the material contained in this collection as well as its appeal. A second booklet contains liner notes from Michael Musto who further expands on the merits of the Beales.
If you've already got the two-disc release of Grey Gardens/ The Beales Of Grey Gardens that came out in 2006, you'll have to gauge how much the high definition video/lossless audio upgrades mean to you, as the extras are identical to that disc. With that said, the improved transfer and audio definitely add to the package in a big way, and the presentation here is up to Criterion's typically high standards. Both films hold up very well to repeat viewings and provide ample insight into two completely eccentric counter-culture heroines. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.