Sleek new cover by artist Shayne Christiansen
GREY GARDENS is an American classic. So much, years later it spawned a fiction feature film adaption starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, a a full-length musical on Broadway, multiple plays loosely based on the main subjects of GREY GARDENS, and many popular models you’ve fantasized about at some point in your life dressed as them on the runway. Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale (who I’m going to refer to as Mama Beale) became the world’s most famous counterculture icons, and all by accident. This is an incredible documentary about two women who who don’t pretend to be great - whether the cameras are rolling or not.
If I were watching GREY GARDENS and a friend walked with no context of what I was happening on screen, he/she could easily pass it off as a horror film; Edith and Mama Beale live in a 28 room mansion in the East Hamptons. Sounds like heaven, right? The only (very large) difference is this mansion is plagued with fleas (a fucking shit ton of them), an unhealthy amount of (stray?) cats, raccoons in the attic that the Beales feed with full loafs of bread mixed with cat food, and whatever you may find in a filthy broken down home that hasn’t kept up its maintenance or has been cleaned in probably, well, ever. This place because so unsanitary, in fact, the town tried to get them evicted — and almost won — but they got help and cleaned up just enough to convince whatever health people that their living conditions could be managed (it never was).
GREY GARDENS is the most unconventional documentary ever made and if there’s another documentary about a family more eccentric and real than The Beales, I haven’t seen it.
What’s funny is GREY GARDENS is shot primarily in three rooms and the patio, where the ladies get a little sun. In the room where they mostly spend their time, there’s two twin beds and Mama is belting her heart out to music from her record player while cooking corn on the cob (on the bed) from what looks to be a tiny grill. Yeah, it gets weird.
Co-directed by Albert Maysles and his late brah, David Maysles, (who both made the widely acclaimed Rolling Stones documentary, GIMME SHELTER) GREY GARDENS has them following the mother and daughter during their daily routines at home. It’s not much, but these two charismatic character make everything they talk, bicker, and banter about more than enough to keep anyone interested during the films 100 minute running time. And as much fighting as these two do, their actions towards each other show how much they love and need one another.
Mama Beales keeps her hobbies steady by singing loud and proud from her record collection - and the most memorable being “Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans (but sung by Mama, of course). Edith occupies her time wearing eclectic outfits, dancing, and talking to the camera about things she gave up to come to care of her mother. But the truth is, Edith needs Mama just as much as mama needs Edith.
What’s so powerful about this film is there’s no narrative, no goal, and no resolution. The biggest problem the filmmakers probably faced was, “When the hell do we stop filming?” Good thing for us fans they didn’t for a while, and released a sequel 31 years later with archived footage not seen in the GREY GARDENS.
This digital restoration for the Blu-ray comes as new 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack — all with the blessing by the co-director Albert Maysles.
As briefly mentioned above, the most exciting supplement on this Criterion Collection is the 2006 follow up, THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS. With a BRIEF introduction by filmmaker Albert Maysles, we learn how close him and his late brother (who did sound) became really close to the ladies - close enough where Edith had a long crush on one of them and finally revealed who it was decades later.
One of the things Edith wished GREY GARDENS had more of was singing and dancing - both her and her mama loved to sing (even though Mama wanted to jump out a window every time Edie belted out a tune - “Get my radio, I’ve got to have professional music,” she would often say). Edith was the dancer and wasn’t afraid to show it. If the cameras were rolling or not, Edith was dancing a jig. This followup just proves my theory that all Edie wanted to be was loved, she wanted to be told she’s pretty, and she wanted to be wanted. She’s the saddest girl to never hold a martini but did her thing and didn’t lose a beat.
Inside the Blu-ray case is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Hilton Als. In this essay, she talks about the interview she had with little Edie after her mother’s death. It’s a thoughtful essay on Edie and sheds light on her post-life without her mother.
Another solid suppliment is an audio interview from 1976 with Little Edie by Kathryn G. Graham. Since it is audio, the screen fills with Edie at her happiest. It’s quite lovely.
GREY GARDENS is such a haunting and poignant story of sticking together, love, regret, and just staying alive. Since there’s no direction and it’s easy to follow the story’s narrative just by listening to the women chatter, and this is what makes GREY GARDENS an American classic.
NOTE: A few of the supplements I hadn’t had time to fully engage in for review and are listed below:
Audio commentary with Maysles and co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, along with associate producer Susan Froemke
Interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett on the continuing influence of GREY GARDENS