I first saw Grey Gardens nearly 39 years ago at the Film Society of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I saw it again last Friday when it opened for a one-week run at Film Forum. For the current release, Grey Gardens has received a 2K digital restoration by The Criterion Collection that preserves all the grain and grit of the original 16mm footage. The film was shot in 1973 by the Maysles Brothers, Albert and David, edited by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, and produced by the Maysles and Susan Froemke. It had its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1975 and was released the following February.
In 1976, I was writing film reviews for The Entertainer, a local paper in Minneapolis that had the sub-heading, “The Newspaper for Young Twin Citians” (very hip). My review of Grey Gardens appeared in the Friday, November 5, 1976 edition. Here is that review in all its glory. I’ve resisted the temptation to make any edits, so this is exactly as it originally appeared (though I’ve added some photographs).
Like something out of a fading Scott Fitzgerald dream, the mansion appropriately called Grey Gardens rises above the foliage surrounding it. Though we’re somewhere in East Hampton, Long Island, in the fall of 1973, the feeling is one of dislocated time and space. Grey Gardens, we are soon to discover, is a time and space unto itself, a world apart created by its occupants, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, as a kind of charged-up Proustian Rememberance of Things Past.
Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (at the U. Film Society this weekend) is a feature-length impression of this extraordinary mother and daughter. In 1971, Grey Gardens was raided by a variety of county officials who found “a garbage-ridden filthy 28-room house with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water, conditions so unsanitary that the Suffolk County Health Department has ordered them to clean up, or face eviction.” This situation had become the concern of socially-conscious neighbors worried over property values and propriety, but it was the Beales’ blood connection to Jackie Kennedy Onassis that made the story a “significant” news item resulting in the headlines the Maysles use to introduce the film.
Grey Gardens serves as a kind of time machine for the Beales. Early in the film Edie says, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” Edith and Edie are constantly seeking to reaffirm who they were, and most importantly to Edie, what she could have been. In a large way, this film is about identity.
Photographs are unearthed almost like war souvenirs from piles of debris, and examined for the memories they trigger. In the pictures we see two beautiful women at different times in their lives, Edith and Edie in another, earlier reality. A conflicting, overlapping, running commentary is provided by Edith and Edie as they show us the photographs, describing them for us and each other in a tug-of-war for the “truth” they represent.
Grey Gardens is primarily the close study of a relationship as witnessed by two friendly visitors. It’s an antagonistic relationship, sometimes cruel, as recriminations are volleyed back and forth, but finally loving, as we see the need Edith and Edie have for one another. They probably are not so different from any of us, beneath our respective inhibitions. That recognition, I think, is one of the values of this film.
On the surface there’s plenty of melodramatic raw material here: an overgrown Southern Gothic quality to the setting that at times suggests Tennessee Williams in the wings; echoes of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; an Eastern aristocratic class spurned in favor of a bohemian life style; etc. To whatever extent we are aware of this is an indication of our conditioning by conventional forms of drama in literature, the stage, and the fiction film. It is to the Maysles’ credit that they didn’t exploit these aspects, but simply presented them as they saw them.
In 1971 Al Maysles said, “We preserve a kind of spontaneous quality of the diary and then make a novel out of the film – without committing it to fiction or an artificial kind of structure.” The documentary filmmaker has an artist’s prerogative to edit and organize the material, but also a responsibility to do so in a way that conveys a sense of the truth as perceived by the filmmaker. To that extent we have to trust the filmmaker. I tend to trust the Maysles.
It’s been charged that Grey Gardens is an invasion of the Beales’ privacy, that they’ve been exploited by the Maysles. And at times, watching Edie dance for an unblinking camera, it seems that maybe they are being taken advantage of. But it’s hard to believe that as we become increasingly aware of just how turned-on by the camera they are, especially Edie. It’s sometimes as though Edie is offering evidence in support of her existence. If the film is taking advantage of the Beales, then they are just as certainly taking advantage of the film.
The Maysles’ presence is never hidden in the film. They are constantly being referred to in Edith and Edie’s often concurrent monologues. They are welcome visitors at Grey Gardens. It’s obvious that the Beales, who are very much aware that a film is being made, regard Al and David with trust and friendship. The Maysles act as a surrogate film audience, and to that extent we are drawn in very close indeed. I really feel that the way Edith and Edie have chosen to present themselves in this film is the way they would have if I were right there, an unlikely visitor at Grey Gardens myself.
Grey Gardens was shown at the university on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, with a four-hour workshop with Al Maysles on campus that Saturday. I gave Maysles a copy of my review after one of the Friday night screenings. At the workshop the next day, he told me how much he’d liked it. This made me feel great, as you might imagine. It feels like I saw basically the same film in 2015 as I did in 1976, though I think I had much more compassion for the Beales this time around. This might be because I’m older now myself, and it’s easier to empathize. Big and Little Edie are eccentric for sure, completely crazy at times, and probably very tough to be around for any length of time, but Grey Gardens is not a freak show.
A fascinating thing about Grey Gardens is the multiple lives it’s had over the years. A musical version opened Off-Broadway in February of 2006, subsequently moving to Broadway that November. It was quite successful, and there have been productions in Australia, Canada, and Japan. An Independent Lens documentary about the making of the musical, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, was screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 2007, and later aired on PBS. This was the first musical to be adapted from a documentary film. Grey Gardens seemed to me like an odd choice to make into a musical, but if something works, it works. Maybe we’ll see musical versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead on Broadway one of these seasons. But I digress.
In 2009, HBO produced a TV movie called Grey Gardens. Starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, this version dramatizes the shooting of the Maysles film, as well as events occurring both before and after, showing us the Beales earlier in their lives and at the premiere of the actual documentary. I don’t remember it that well, but Lange and Barrymore nailed Edith and Edie’s speech patterns and intonations.
In 2006, Al Maysles put together another documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens, assembled from outtakes from the 50 hours of footage shot for the original film. I haven’t seen this film, but I gather it acts as a kind of supplement to the first, expanding on that film and the Beales’ frequently contentious relationship. When a film has generated as much interest as Grey Gardens has over the years, it’s not surprising that people would want to see more of it. The film and the Beales resonated with audiences in ways that have supported the various recreations. Nearly 40 years later, Grey Gardens is just as vibrant and bizarre — and human — as ever.
After seeing Grey Gardens last Friday, it was quite a jolt to learn later that day that Al Maysles had died the night before at age 88. Al and his brother David (who died in 1987 at age 54) were major figures in the field of documentary film. True pioneers, along with D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, and Richard Leacock, they helped develop cinema vérité and Direct Cinema as we know it, aided by the new lightweight cameras and sound equipment. Of their many films, standouts also include Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970). Despite pushing 90, Al had not slowed down at all. His new film Iris, about fashion icon Iris Apfel, premiered at the New York Film Festival last year and will open at Film Forum on April 29. Based on the trailer, it looks fascinating. Al also had other films in the pipeline. It’s impossible to over-estimate his importance in the world of film. He will be greatly missed. — Ted Hicks