January 13, 2014

Return to 'Grey Gardens': Criterion Collection Releases New Blu-Ray Edition

Grey Gardens A Film by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke, 1976, 94 minutes
Blu-Ray Edition Published by The Criterion Collection 2013

On September 21, 1975, in an upstairs hallway, in a decaying mansion in the exclusive Village of East Hampton, New York, David and Al Maysles, "Little Edie" and "Big Edie" Beale along with a few others, watched a preview screening of Grey Gardens, a film that had been shot over six weeks in the fall of 1973 by the Maysles brothers, along with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer.

It had taken Hovde, Meyer and Susan Froemke over two years to edit the more than 70 hours of film shot, with the full cooperation of the mother and daughter Beales, who had been thrilled at the prospect of being able to be stars in their own lives. The filmmakers must have been holding their breath in anticipation of the Beales' reaction—and surely to the relief of the filmmakers, the woman loved the film.

Grey Gardens was showcased in 1975 at the New York Film Festival and had its public premier in Manhattan on February 20, 1976. While ranked 9th among the top documentaries of all time in a 2007 poll conducted by the International Documentary Association, and considered a cult classic, Grey Gardens was not greeted with universal love when it was first released. It received mixed reviews in The New York Times and Village Voice as it played out to the horror of some and to the utter fascination of a large segment of the film-going public. The critics as well as some audience members were shocked by the intimacy of the film and the circumstances of the women's lives: an unwieldy proliferation of cats (25!), and incalculable numbers of fleas; the filth of the beds, where both Big Edie and Little Edie spent much of their waking as well as sleeping hours; and the raccoons, who gradually devoured not only the bread and cat food put out for them in the attic by Little Edie, but also the house itself.

 

The Beales: "Big" Edie (left) and "Little" Edie. Courtesyof The Criterion Collection

 

Even before the film was made, the Beales were becoming problematic to their high-society, upscale neighbors. In 1971 the Suffolk County Health Department raided Grey Gardens, accompanied by an ASPCA investigator, a veterinarian, a public health nurse, a representative of the East Hampton Village attorney's office, a building inspector and a fire marshal. The fact that the Beales were the cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis probably saved them. As a result of that raid, Edith Bouvier Beale rarely left the estate for fear that it would be taken away from her. She died on February 5, 1977, apparently of pneumonia, and it is rumored that when asked by her daughter if there was anything she wanted to say, she said no, since everything she wanted to tell the world was already in the Maysles documentary.

The Maysles team shot the film in 16mm. The brothers did not set out to make a portrait of these two incredible woman; they stumbled on their subjects accidentally. Originally they had been contacted by Lee Radziwell and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to make a documentary about their lives growing up in the Bouvier family—which included the eccentric cousins in the Hamptons. In the midst of doing the research for the commissioned film, the Maysles realized the far more interesting story would be the Beales. So, they dropped the Radziwell film and proceeded to make Grey Gardens.

 

Left to right: Edith Beale, David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Edie Beale. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

 

"Little" Edie Beale was born in 1917 in Manhattan, the daughter of Edith Bouvier and Phelan Beale. She was gorgeous by any standard and grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege. She had a wildly creative streak and could have married many times over, but she never did. Her early attachment to her mother evolved into a mutual dependency, which was responsible in part for their gradual isolation and their deplorable living conditions when the Maysles brothers first encountered them. Little Edie was a mesmerizing character of many talents. She embraced being filmed with a vengeance, as though she knew this might be her last chance at immortality and fame.    

In spite of the initial critical ambivalence, the documentary found an avid following and spawned a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical and an HBO movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. It never slid completely out of our cultural consciousness and thanks to The Criterion Collection, we now have this beautiful, carefully restored, Blu-Ray Edition, richly complemented by supporting material that includes a new 2K digital film restoration of The Beales of Grey Gardens, a 2006 follow-up to the original film; an audio commentary of Grey Gardens with Albert Maysles, Hovde, Meyer and Froemke; an introduction to The Beales of Grey Gardens by Maysles; audio excerpts from a 1976 interview with Little Edie Beale; interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett on the continuing influence of Grey Gardens; behind-the-scenes photographs; trailers; and an essay by Hilton Als, staff writer at The New Yorker.

In viewing this edition, I found the color quality stunning. By comparison, my more than 30-year-old memory of the film seemed to be in black and white, or perhaps it was the bleak quality of the trapped relationship between mother and daughter that made its impression in shades of grey. I have always felt a strong affinity to this documentary. I spent my childhood and young adult summers on the beaches of Long Island's North Fork with family outings to The Hamptons, where more elite families than mine vacationed. Grey Gardens was a familiar, weathered sight.

The audio commentary, particularly the dialogue among Hovde, Meyer and Froemke in a scene-by-scene illustrated discussion, is heartfelt, enlightening and invaluable in understanding not only the mother-daughter dynamic, but also the filmmaking process and struggle to find the story in 70 hours of often repetitive, circular interactions between the Beales. Explanations as to why certain scenes were included, along with evidence of the evolving, intimate relationship of the subjects with the filmmakers, are revealing.

The filmmakers also discuss the negative reactions of some influential film critics upon the film's release. It seems the fear of aging, of showing female flesh as it sags and deteriorates, was considered anathema in the 1970s, as though the filmmakers had violated their subjects simply by showing the truth of who they were. There is clear evidence that rather than feeling violated or exploited, both mother and daughter felt they had been honored and validated by the Maysles film. Now, The Criterion Collection has helped enormously in continuing the legacy of the Beales and Grey Gardens. No film studies program or media library should be without this new Blu Ray Edition.

Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.