The Beales of Grey Gardens

The Beales of Grey Gardens
Directors: Albert Maysles and David Maysles
Features: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Jerry Torre, Lois Wright
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S.
The Beales of Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection DVD
The Beales of Grey GardensWhen the Direct Cinema pioneers Albert and David Maysles took their 16mm cameras into the decaying East Hampton mansion known as Grey Gardens to document the wonderfully strange lives of 79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her 56-year-old daughter “Little Edie” Beale, respective aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, they emerged after six weeks with some 70 hours of footage. All of that celluloid was eventually culled into the equally fascinating and unnerving 94-minute documentary Grey Gardens. Since its release in 1976, Grey Gardens has developed a cult following and has, rather improbably, led to a recent off-Broadway and then Broadway musical and is currently being turned into a Hollywood film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

To capitalize on this re-energized fascination with the Beales, Albert Maysles (his brother passed away in 1987) has gone back to the original footage and culled together another 90-minute documentary. The resulting film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, which premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, plays exactly like what it is: outtakes from a landmark documentary. Perhaps assuming that everyone who sees this film will have already seen Grey Gardens and be familiar with the Beales’ lives, Maysles neglects to give the new film any context or construct any kind of narrative flow or development. Rather, he simply strings together a series of scenes that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut back in ’76. Some of these scenes have taken on new meaning in recent years; for example, in one of the very first shots of the film, Little Edie sits on the edge of the porch and says that she would never want someone else to portray her mother or her, which sounds eerily prophetic given their recent and upcoming depictions on stage and screen.

As a series of outtakes, The Beales of Grey Gardens has its own intrinsic interest, especially for those who find Big and Little Edie fascinating characters (as, I must profess, I do). As in Grey Gardens, Little Edie gets the most screen time, cavorting before the Maysles’ camera in her outlandishly original, homemade couture, sometimes singing, sometimes flirting shamelessly with the brothers. She talks incessantly--about Catholicism, politics, men, the negative aspects of rubber asphalt shingles--and she remains alternately intriguing, funny, and mystifying. She is full of her own brand of wit and wisdom, such as when she criticizes the lack of romance in American men. “What’s romantic about a stock broker?” she quite rightly asks.

Yet, even more so than in the first film, Little Edie seems sad, and all of her extroverted energy and campy strutting feel more and more like a thin disguise for her loneliness. The film includes a pair of scenes that take her away from the decaying 28-room mansion in which she and her mother lived for 20 years--one in which she is leaving church after Mass and another extended sequence where she goes to the beach--and in these scenes she never seems more alone. Particularly in the shots of her leaving the church, surrounded by other people, she takes on a melancholic air of isolation. This sadness is underscored frequently by what she says directly to the camera, especially when talking about how many people she lost in her youth to World War II--“All the boys I danced with died,” she laments quietly.

Despite the undeniable power of some of the sequences, the film itself is something of a disappointment because it never amounts to more than the sum of its parts. We get to see more of the Beales, and in a way we get to know them better than we did in Grey Gardens simply for having spent more time with them. But, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Maysles could have done something more with the footage--made it more than just a collection of unseen outtakes and brought this semi-sequel to the strange, gloriously disturbing heights of the original.

The Beales of Grey Gardens Criterion Collection DVD
Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens Box SetThe Beales of Grey Gardens is available separately (MSRP $19.95) or packaged in a box set with the 1976 film Grey Gardens (MSRP $49.95)
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
SupplementsIntroduction by Albert Maysles
DistributorThe Criterion Collection
Release DateDecember 5, 2006

Although The Beales of Grey Gardens is a “new” film, it is composed entirely of footage that was shot more than 30 years ago and has spent all those years in storage. Thus, the visual look of the film is quite uneven owing to the differing states of the footage itself. Some scenes look extremely bright and clean, while others have clearly faded. The transfer was made from the original camera negative and 16mm workprint and was supervised by editor Ian Markiewicz and approved by director Albert Maysles. It perfectly represents the look of the film’s rough, grainy 16mm aesthetic. The MTI Digital Restoration System was used to remove a lot of dirt and debris, but the most obvious bits of damage (mostly around the edges of the frame in a few shots) was left intact to reflect the film’s age and condition. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the original 16mm magnetic tracks, sounds clean, although the optional subtitles are sometimes useful, especially when Big Edie is talking.
The only supplement is a new video introduction by codirector Albert Maysles, who discusses why he returned to the original footage and created the film. He also expresses his admiration for the film’s subjects and reminisces about his experiences with them.

Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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