****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke
THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS (2006)
directed by Albert Maysles & David Maysles
by Jefferson Robbins "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and present." That cast-off remark from Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale early in Grey Gardens, the documentary molded from her enclosed and deluded life, is a cornerstone truth in so many sad domestic stories like hers. Every Gothic romance novel knows it, with their living ghosts rattling around grand old manses much like Little Edie's 19th-century East Hampton estate--not least Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, a work she returns to over and over. It's an affliction, this unstuckness in time, and it besets the aged and the ill until nostalgia becomes, essentially, the place where they live. Her mother, Edith Ewing "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, the more insightful of the pair, recognizes it in her daughter as well as herself. "I've certainly got ideas about living in the wrong time," the matriarch says from the stained twin bed at Grey Gardens she seldom bestirs herself to leave. And then one of her many cats defecates in a corner, sheltering behind the vivid oil portrait of Big Edie in her beautiful, younger years.
It's all like that, this adored document steered by Albert and David Maysles--all charm and flirting humour overlaying deep heartbreak, which only reveals itself as we're drawn further in. Then we're left alone to reflect on it while the silent white credits scroll up against a scrim of green, a colour we've rarely encountered within Grey Gardens itself. Little Edie's theatricality and razor humour, and her bespoke costuming sense, do what they're meant to: They entice the right kind of amused attention but also deflect from the desperation beneath the enticement. The Maysleses, however, aren't diverted. Their empathic lenses capture every tremor and darting glance, every pluck of the headscarf and every flicker in this 56-year-old former socialite's affect. Her body language betrays a terrible fear and sadness: Little Edie, this "stauuuunch charactah," is mentally ill, and she is hopelessly trapped by knowledge of the lives she could have lived but had to forgo because of it. Normally in these Gothics the madwoman is shut in the attic, yet it's the fiercely present Big Edie, who turns 78 in the course of the documentary, who reigns from the upper-story bedroom. If the daughter is unhinged and grandiose, her mother is completely in the moment; she just doesn't care. Her physical frailty entwines with her daughter's psychological ailments, and they're both ensnared. Little Edie says, often, that she might have left Grey Gardens decades ago to build a functional life, had Big Edie not needed her care. It's Eugene O'Neill captured on Kodak film stock: Two upright, artistic, aristocratic women, failed by their privilege, their bodies, their men, their minds, and each other, then confined together with no obvious exit. I can see in them aspects of my own family. If you're honest, so can you.
By birthright, things should have been easy for these near relations of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Beale women came to public attention in the early-1970s for the irony they offered: American royalty fallen into squalor and besieged by East Hampton's public health inspectors. By then, mother and daughter had spent twenty years enclosed in Grey Gardens together, watching the 28-room mansion decay around them, sharing their home with cats, raccoons (whom Little Edie feeds entire loaves of Wonder Bread), and fleas. Jackie O interceded to save them from fines and possible eviction, to much publicity--but as is the way with recluses and hoarders, no one could really save them from themselves, and they remained ensconced until Big Edie's death in 1977. In the interim, though, les frères Maysles came calling, and rolled while the Beale women talked, and talked, and talked.
To hear Big Edie tell it, their descent began around the time her husband, wealthy lawyer Phelan Beale, "stopped living in East Hampton." The man these women call "Mr. Beale," although seen here only in an old photo, casts the silhouette of an ogre across the estate. Little Edie feared her father, it seems ("Mr. Beale would've had me committed"), and remains deeply conflicted about him: The intimation that her mother may have taken other lovers sends Little Edie into a rage, threatening the Maysles brothers with violence for even circling the idea. It was after Mr. Beale's separation from his wife that Little Edie suffered some sort of break, forcing her to "recuperate at Mama's for about fifteen, twenty years." (Again, Big Edie's words.)
Death hovers in Grey Gardens, despite the insistent thrum of life in the Edies. Particularly disturbing is a segment in which Little Edie entertains the Maysles' camera in a studio of sorts while the dependent Big Edie calls out again and again from her bedroom for a set of clothes, for something to eat. Her daughter blinks her words away and keeps talking. It suggests, frighteningly, that one day soon Little Edie could wobble too far off her axis and leave her aged mother adrift. A couple of accomplished singers, they bond and then fracture again over music. In a distinctive feat of assembly, editor/co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer chart their mutual fondness from a duet on "Tea For Two;" to the famous "pink room" conflagration, when Little Edie torments her mother with a mimicry of Marlene Dietrich; to finally the isolation and entropy of Big Edie drifting off to sleep with Cole Porter's "Night and Day" ("...In the silence of my lonely room") while Little Edie dances alone in the downstairs hall. The end of the film is in fact the inevitable end for all of us.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Albert Maysles survives his younger brother, and as with Criterion discs wherever possible, the filmmaker supervises this 1.33:1, 1080p Blu-ray release, transferred from the original A/B negative. The results show their 16mm source, naturally, but not to any diminishment of the product, retaining sharpness and contour even in the gloom of Grey Gardens' neglected interiors. The upper levels, where the Beales make their home in just a handful of rooms plus a sun porch, remain bright in the summer daylight, and colour balance is rich enough to note how the painted walls have faded with age and neglect. Fine detail is high--every housefly that flits past Big Edie's soiled bed registering on the eye, the rips in Little Edie's disintegrating stockings now plain against her tanned flesh. Heightened anyway by the 16mm format, the grain of the picture feels slightly unnatural, a buzz rather than a patina, but there are no filmic imperfections worth calling out. Audio-wise, it's mono, but it's probably the best mono I've encountered, particularly in a documentary of this age and aesthetic. Though the centre-channel LPCM track has a paperiness and a clack to it, that's of the soundtrack's time, and it still grants a sense of space in the house that places us very much within the Edies' domain. That's a tribute in part to the skill of David Maysles, seen wielding the boom mic while Albert shoots. Many of the dialogue bits the English SDH subtitling (which is excellent) renders as "(inaudible)," I found distinct enough to decode.
Albert Maysles roundtables on a commentary track with editors Hovde and Meyer and associate producer Susan Froemke--the four of whom share director credit (with David Maysles) on the film for their roles in managing the project. (The track is imported, along with many other supplements, from Criterion's 2001 DVD release.) As befits an extraordinarily intimate portrait, all involved have strong memories of their encounters with the Beales and the process of assembly. Maysles, beyond his opening introduction and some technical notes, seems to speak the least: This is a story of two women, and the three women who helped shepherd it offer the strongest recollections. The interplay of the Edies means something important to them, and they spend much of this yakker dissecting and interpreting their subjects' motives. The scene with Edie commanding the camera in her studio room while her mother calls for aid implies something different and less dark to Hovde: She suggests Big Edie's "yoo-hoos!" weren't about abandonment by Little Edie, but abandonment by the camera. The two women vied for the Maysles brothers' attention, she says, and when the daughter became the focus, the mother peacocked to get it back--and vice versa. This is borne out, I suppose, by Little Edie's dramatic entry at one point while her mother natters on from her bed--boldly locking eyes to the camera, wearing what appears to be three separate sets of lacy black window treatments with a bustle at her groin. Hovde, Meyer, and Froemke are interested in the backstory, wondering though never quite settling on exactly what Little Edie's mental diagnosis might be, for instance. What comes through most clearly is the affection the filmmakers have for these ladies, and their gratitude that Little Edie's powerful ego apparently found some validation in the public appropriations of her story that followed the film's release.
Refining the filmmakers' commentary thoughts is The Beales of Grey Gardens, a follow-up cobbled together from the Maysleses' outtakes in 2006. This 91-minute inquiry, presented here in interlaced HD at 1.33:1, seems a lot quieter than the central film, with more attention paid to the individual women than to their shared dynamic. Jerry Torre, the young volunteer handyman who acts as a foil for the two women's battles in the main documentary, gets a wider role here, as do drifty bohemian friend Lois Erdman Wright and her terrible, terrible paintings. Character moments for either subject enhance the dimensions established in Grey Gardens, as when Little Edie denies a journalistic charge that she's schizophrenic ("No Beale is schizophrenic. They're too strong."), then reads her own Scorpio profile from the astrologer Zolar's All in the Stars almanac. "'Their greatest battle will be with themselves,'" goes Zolar's characterization, to which she appends: "Correct."
Big Edie, in these segments, comes across as less bourgeois-blasé and more actively cruel, at one point telling her daughter, in front of the film crew and Wright, "Your face is so ugly!" From her bed, she recites from memory the whole of 19th-century English poet Charles Kingsley's "Lorraine," which brings her to weep--us, too, when we consider the line, "That husbands could be cruel, I have known for seasons three." The Beales of Grey Gardens lacks the cohesion of its predecessor, not to mention the context, and its design as an ancillary component means it can't really stand as its own work--it exists because of the hunger whetted by Grey Gardens itself. But seen in that light, it has its moments, as when the Maysleses help Little Edie smother a drywall fire in the upper hall. Big Edie, of course, has to needle her daughter about this disaster averted. "Did you have to do it with Jacqueline's three hundred dollar blanket?" she asks. Albert Maysles offers an optional 8-minute introduction to the feature in full HD.
Little Edie gets many more words in, most of them frank biographical excursions, in a 41-minute audio feature recorded by journalist Kathryn G. Graham for a 1976 issue of INTERVIEW magazine. She's also held up as a particular style icon in two five-minute interviews, both in 1080i, with designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett, each of whom offers an appreciation of not only the film but also the younger of its two subjects--to the point that Bartlett, citing "the bohemian insanity of the way that she presents herself," used snippets of Little Edie's voice on a soundtrack to his Grey Gardens-inspired fashion exhibit in 2000. In part, this begs the question of why the movie's eager adoption by many gay moviegoers and intellectuals is not addressed anywhere, either in the audiovisual materials or Hilton Als's insert essay. (It's not the first time this camp-iconic status has gone unexamined in relevant literature.) It was this embrace, after all, that propelled the movie's evolution into a 2006 Broadway musical and a 2009 HBO drama.
Three galleries proffer some 120 still frames or photos taken during production, including some quite charming and illustrative images of the Beales and their cats. The original two-minute trailer, advertising the documentary's engagement at the Paris Theater on New York's Fifth Avenue, is on board in HiDef, as is a thirty-second TV spot that describes Grey Gardens as "a love story...of sorts." Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter