Grey Gardens

Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Editors: Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke
Features: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edie Beale, Brooks Hires, Jack Helmuth, Jerry Torre, Lois Wright
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1976
Country: USA
Grey Gardens DVD Cover

Grey Gardens is a documentary that elicits deeply discordant responses, and therein lies its power. It is at once funny and sad, moving and pathetic, intriguing and repulsive. The contradictory nature of its two subjects—79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her 56-year-old daughter Edie Beale, respective aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—infuses the entire film with an edgy uncertainty. Are these two women mentally unbalanced or just willfully nonconformist? Is the film exploitation or heart-felt examination? These are questions that are left dangling when the film is over, and they're hard to shake off. I have the feeling that one of the reasons Grey Gardens developed into a minor cult classic is that the ironic detachment of camp is the only vantage point from which it is comfortable to view it. To take it on its own terms and identify completely with its subjects can be a harrowing experience that is deeply discomfiting.

The title of the film comes from the name of the East Hampton, Long Island, mansion in which the two women lived together for more than 20 years. The film opens with a series of newspaper clippings that give us the bare minimum of background. We learn that "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," as they have come to be known, were almost evicted from their own home by the Suffolk County health inspector for the deplorable living conditions (one newspaper article described it as "garbage-ridden and filthy ... with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs, and no running water").

Indeed, the 28-room mansion in which they lived was crumbling from age and lack of upkeep. A series of shots establishes the wealthy, pristine nature of the homes in East Hampton before the camera settles on a shot of Grey Gardens, which resembles a decaying gothic mansion almost entirely consumed by the unchecked plant growth around it, with only the roof and multiple chimneys visible above the towering foliage. Obviously, it was once just as gorgeous as the homes around it, but the harsh effect of time's passage has taken its toll. The destructive nature of time is one of the film's consistent visual and thematic motifs, as decay is everywhere, from the house itself, to Big and Little Edie's memories, to their own aging and badly cared-for bodies.

With Big Edie and Little Edie's permission, the Maysles Brothers, David and Albert (best known for Gimme Shelter, their earth-rattling 1970 documentary of the Rolling Stones' ill-fated Altamont concert), took their cameras into the mansion for six weeks in 1974 and emerged with some 70 hours of footage. Grey Gardens is a prime example of their "direct cinema" technique, a form of cinéma vérité in which the Maysles simply let the cameras roll with minimal interaction with their subjects. At the same time, though, they never try to hide their presence (their being there is, in fact, an integral part of the film itself), and the intimate portrait they captured of this odd mother and daughter wavers constantly between genuine in-the-moment reality and what is obviously self-conscious performance.

Although the film is relatively short at 94 minutes in length, the filmmakers (the Maysles Brothers did all the filming, and the laborious task of editing their footage into a cohesive narrative fell to Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke) create an indelible portrait of the two women without any voice-over narration or awkward journalistic interviewing. Rather, they simply let Big and Little Edie live out their lives before the camera lens. Much of the film consists of conversations, bickering, and reminiscing—but, most of all, simple human interaction, both beautiful and ugly.

Sometimes, of course, this involves performative display, the kind that some critics have complained falsifies the reality of the documentary. However, it is an integral characteristic of Big and Little Edie that they are performers, constantly competing with each other for the camera's gaze, and we grow to understand them through what they do on-screen, self-consciously or otherwise.

A scene in which Big Edie sings along with an ancient record of "Tea for Two" would probably never have happened had the Maysles not been in the room, but that doesn't mean it is any less effective in conveying to us Big Edie's pride in her voice and her lifelong disappointment that she never became the professional singer she always wanted to be. Similarly, when Little Edie talks directly to Maysles through the camera, proudly discussing her odd wardrobe choice for that day, it is an insight into her persona and how desperately she wants to break free of her mother's control. Would these things have happened had the camera not been there? Possibly not, but that does not imply that these actions are false or meaningless. What people do when they are consciously performing for others is just as telling about who they are as so-called unconscious actions.

Much of the film takes place in the cluttered squalor of their tiny bedroom, with Big Edie enthroned on her filthy twin bed while Little Edie moves around the room. They go through old photographs, proudly showing the camera how beautiful they were in their youth (and they were beautiful). Here we begin to get a sense of just how deeply involved they once were in the high society of wealth and privilege that still surrounds them, but from which they are now completely and willfully cut off—they were once part of the closest thing America has to royalty. If the film has a weakness, it is that the past is not explored as thoroughly as it could have been, and thus rich social and historical context is left somewhat vague.

The question becomes, then, are Big and Little Edie purposeful noncomformists, or are they mentally unbalanced recluses? That question will be answered differently by different viewers. Many feel a great affinity for these two eccentric women and adore them deeply; others are simply repulsed by their apparent mental haze and complete detachment from reality (for instance, when Little Edie talks about taking care of the house and decorating a bedroom, her comments are strikingly absurd given the dingy and decaying decrepitude of the room she's in).

Yet, whether you're drawn to them or repulsed by them, it is impossible to deny that Big and Little Edie are unique, unforgettable people (at one point, Little Edie describes herself quite rightly as a "staunch character"). Their high-society Long Island speech rhythms seem strangely out of place in their surroundings; yet, like the photographs and trinkets that clutter their room, that speech is part of the history of who they were and, in many ways, still are. With Grey Gardens, the Maysles Brothers probably got as close to understanding these women as anyone possible could, and the fact that they still remain enigmatic is testament to their abiding complexity and, perhaps, their ultimate unknowability.

Grey Gardens Criterion Collection Directors' Edition DVD
Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens Box Set Grey Gardens is available separately (MSRP $39.95) or packaged in a box set with the 2006 film The Beales of Grey Gardens (MSRP $49.95)
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke
Excerpts from a 1976 recorded interview with Edie Beale
Video interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett
Family photographs and newspaper clippings
Behind-the-scenes photographs
Original theatrical trailer
TV spot
Distributor The Criterion Collection / Home Vision

Grey Gardens was shot on 16mm using mostly natural light and then blown up to 35mm for most theatrical showings, so the visual quality of the film varies from scene to scene. Expect some grain and don't be surprised when darker scenes look somewhat muddy and ill-defined. Having said that, however, I must say Criterion has done an outstanding job with this transfer, which was taken from a 35mm color reversal negative in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and approved by codirector Albert Maysles. Colors are bold and well-saturated, and detail is often extraordinary, really giving us a sense of just how dirty and decrepit everything was. Despite the shaky, handheld aesthetic, Grey Gardens is a visually striking documentary, and this transfer does a wonderful job of bringing out all its visual nuances, especially since it has spent so many years languishing on murky video copies.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack replicates the original aural quality of the film, which isn't all that great, but succeeds in giving an immediate sense of the Grey Gardens environment. Sounds are not always as distinct as you would like them to be (the result of filming with one omnidirectional microphone), but dialogue is always clear and understandable.

With the exception of David Maysles, who died 14 years ago, Criterion has rounded up all the film's directors and editors for an intriguing screen-specific audio commentary. Recorded in two sessions—one with codirector Albert Maysles and editor/associate producer Susan Froemke, and the other with editors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer—and then edited together, the commentary is an indispensable supplement for understanding the film itself and what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish. The commentary is filled with much more discussion about Big and Little Edie than about the actual making of the film, and the comments and insights make it clear that the filmmakers held, and still hold, a deep respect for these two women (in fact, they were shocked when some critics felt that Big and Little Edie had been exploited by the cameras).

Also included are more than 40 minutes of excerpts from an audio interview with Little Edie conducted by Kathryn G. Graham for Interview magazine in 1976. Divided into 10 chapters, Edie talks about her childhood (going to boarding school was "absolute heaven"), working with Maysles (everything they did was "absolutely superb"), and the "raid" on her mother's house by the health inspectors (she believes the search warrant used was fake), among other things.

The disc also includes two video interviews shot by Albert Maysles with fashion designers Todd Oldham (who many will recognize as a regular contributor to shows on MTV and VH-1) and John Bartlett. They both discuss their own reactions to, and memories of, Grey Gardens and the effect that Little Edie's unique wardrobe had on their own fashion design (for example, Bartlett designed an entire clothing line in 2000 based on Edie's "look").

A scrapbook section is comprised of three photograph galleries. The first gallery contains many Beale family photographs, including several of the ones featured in the film, as well as newspaper clippings, most of which are about Little Edie's "coming out" as a debutante in her late teens. A second gallery contains dozens of photographs taken during the filming of the documentary, and, just to be thorough, a third gallery has a handful of photographs of the many cats that lived at Grey Gardens.

Lastly, the disc includes an original theatrical trailer and a TV spot (both of which were made specifically for the New York market), as well a filmographies of Maysles Films and Middlemarch Films, which was created by Hovde and Meyer in 1978.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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