|Grey Gardens / The Beale of Grey Gardens (1976)
Starring: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale
Director: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles and David Maysles
Mother and daughter Edith and “Edie” Beale first made headlines in the early ‘70s, when they were nearly kicked out of their home by public health officials who raided it and declared it a health hazard. Of course, depressing stories about individuals seemingly unable to properly take care of themselves are, sadly, something we hear about every day. But it’s not every day that the people in question live in a 28-room mansion in the illustrious neighborhood of East Hampton. And it’s not everyday that the people in question happen to be not-too-distant relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as the Beales happened to be (Edith being Jackie’s aunt and Edie her first cousin).
Just how do two women from one of the country’s most respected families end up living in conditions that get them raided by public health officials and their home nearly demolished? That’s the question that acclaimed documentarians Albert and David Maysles set out to answer in 1976, with their film “Grey Gardens,” a movie that has since become a cult classic, not to mention a beacon of hope for anyone who lives on the fringes of society and doesn’t quite fit in.
The Maysles filmed every aspect of the Beale’s lives, which were almost entirely comprised of the two entertaining each other and themselves in Grey Gardens, their massive, continually decaying mansion. Edie (who was 56 at the time of filming) spends her days creating her own outlandish outfits and dance moves, while occasionally “singing,” to the dismay of her mother, Edith. At 80 years old, Edith doesn’t do much of anything aside from pet her cats, read, and occasionally sing to herself. It’s when Edith sings her first note, though, that you realize there’s more to her story than first thought, because even in her dotage, she could really belt them out.
As the Maysleses filmed the Beales, over the course of six weeks, they learned the tragic circumstances leading to their situation. Edith Beale, a prominent figure in the New York social scene, had dreams of becoming a singer – something well-to-do-ladies simply did not do back then. Fiercely independent before women were allowed to be, her intransigence prompted her husband to divorce her, leaving Edith in the massive house alone and eventually unable to care for herself.
Edie’s story is even more tragic, as it sadly echoes that of her mother’s. Edie moved to New York to be a dancer, but she never seemed to get the break she needed. About the only difference between the two is that while Edith was stopped by others in her quest to be happy, Edie most likely stopped herself. And while Edith seems consigned to her fate, Edie spends days wondering about what could have been, and dreaming about moving back to New York City to give a career as a dancer and singer another go.
Because of the Beale’s tragic stories and less than normal personality traits, “Grey Gardens” can be very difficult to watch. Edith and Edie constantly argue about the past, and Edie seems to resent her mother for “making” her leave New York City and return home to take care of her. At the same time, it becomes painfully obvious that Edie needs her mother just as much as her mother needs her, and without her, Edie would most likely be on the street – or worse – as she lives in a complete fantasy world. Watching them can almost be like watching a train wreck.
It can be a really funny train wreck, however, and certain moments of the film are downright hysterical. Edie and Edith’s constant bickering is endearing as often as it is depressing, and Edie’s delusional fashion sense and tragic dance numbers are a hoot. Despite the seemingly destitute and disastrous lives the two women live, their happiness and joie de vivre never seem to run out, and quite frankly, by the end, the film is more inspirational and uplifting than anything else.
This two-disc set from Criterion also includes the new film “The Beales of Grey Gardens.” Comprised entirely of footage not used in the original film, “The Beales of Grey Gardens” adds further insight into the unique history and personalities of Big and Little Edith Beale and their very small social circle. The sequel lacks the emotional punch of the first film, being much more lighthearted and flippant. Many scenes center on Edie’s developing crush on both Maysles brothers, as well as her unusual relationship with the neighbor boy, Jerry, and family friend Lois. While “Grey Gardens” has a fly-on-the-wall feel to it, this movie has much more interaction between the filmmakers and the Beales, and feels almost like a home movie at times. While it’s undoubtedly entertaining, much of the movie seems like lip service to the original’s diehard fans. We get more singing, more dancing, more crazy and hilarious rants and, most importantly, more of Edie’s insane ‘costumes.’ The film even ends with a montage of Edie’s greatest fashion hits. While it may not be as good as the original film, it is certainly easier to watch.
“Grey Gardens”’ reputation as a cult classic and landmark documentary is deserved. You’ve never met anyone like the Beales, and you probably never will again. Still breathtaking, hysterical and tragic some 30 years after it was made, “Grey Gardens” – and, to a lesser extent its belated sequel – are movies that every fan of the slightly left-of-center must own, and now stand as fitting memorials to two women who got the recognition and fame they deserved far too late in life.
Criterion doesn’t disappoint with this two-disc set. “Grey Gardens” features commentary by the directors and editors, as well as several featurettes on the legacy of the film. “Beales of Grey Gardens”’ special features are a little light, but the in-depth introduction by Albert Maysles is good enough.
~~James B. Eldred