Grey Gardens Review
The mother/daughter relationship is a profound one and not often placed under the microscope. In 1975, two filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles chose to do just that with their documentary, Grey Gardens, which Criterion has restored and released the documentary on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.
Grey Gardens, the 14-room house in the Georgica Pond neighbourhood of East Hampton, owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her then-husband Phelan. Upon divorce, Phelan provided his wife, Big Edie and their daughter Little Edie with living costs. Once the funds had dried up, the house fell into disrepair and in ’72 the Suffolk County attempted to evict the two women and demolish the property. The press’ interest lay in whom the Beale’s were related to, on-time First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Like with all documentaries, there is a level of manipulation, almost certainly, voyeurism and a vested interest in the subjects viewed. This is one of the few that appears to have no ulterior motive other than depicting Big Edie and Little Edie just as they are/were. It is a wonderfully weird piece of work; a character study of almost morbid fascination about privilege, crumbling Patriotism, and those two extraordinary women who thrived amongst reclusive squalor and the crumbling detritus of their lives.
There is a home-video quality to Grey Gardens which although beautifully restored still contains a graininess which adds to its authenticity and intimacy. Often filmed outside, the natural lighting means that colours within the frame are stunning and pop on screen as Little Edie takes centre stage in her colourful ensembles and jewellery adorned headscarves. At times, it is hard to avert one’s eyes from what is on screen, their eccentricities are, initially, hard to comprehend but both women have such warmth and veracity that the audience is soon taken in. One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is the lack of narrative time – the only indication is the dilapidated wall within the large expanse of foyer in the house and the noticeable hole in the wall gets bigger as the raccoon they share the house with (along with some 52 feral cats) makes itself a home.
Observing these two amazing women are the Maysles brothers who strike up such a seemingly genuine rapport with our main ‘characters’ that it is truly a joy to experience. In one of the disc extras, within the confines of the
scrapbook, it is stated that: “A few years ago, two brothers fell in love with a mother and her daughter.” Thanks to Criterion’s 4K restoration of the original negative we get to experience this visually beautiful love story first hand, sound quality is sublime and the mono track reproduces Little Edie and her mater’s dulcet singing voice to perfection.
Grey Gardens shows us a tender, loving and, at times argumentative, mother-daughter relationship; full of ups and downs and yet their commitment to each other and their way of life never falter. Both are unapologetically wonderful and weird in equal measure. We should all embrace a Little Edie.
As with all Criterion Collection discs we come to expect a wealth of extras, this one is no different. We actually get two films for the price of one...
Recorded in 2001, this commentary features the surviving Maysles brother, Albert along with co-directors Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke. This can accessed at any point during the film.
The Beales of Grey Gardens (90 mins)
Recorded in 2006, this is a follow up to the original film and created from additional footage and contains an introduction by Albert Maysles (8 mins). The second film is less of an observation feature and more interactions with conversations drawn out between the filmmakers and their subjects. It builds on the mother-daughter relationship and sees them in more profound moments. Maysles liked the idea of bringing them back to life with this inclusion, I have to agree.
Little Edie (40 mins)
Interview conducted by Kathryn G. Graham for April 1976 issue of Interview magazine. Audio excerpts are played over the iconic image of Little Edie hiding her face behind a compact mirror – a now misleading stock photo given the refreshing openness of the person. This is a revealing interview which is heartbreaking in parts when Edie reveals how damaging press treatment and problems with her family home affected her.
Interviews (10 mins)
In 2001, Albert Maysles shot interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett about the impact Grey Gardens had on them and their careers. Both men have produced clothing lines which have incorporated aspects of the Little Edie ‘look’ and the individuality she possessed which has been hugely inspiring to not only them but countless others. They both site the hypnotic cinematography and visual beauty of the film itself as contributing factors to their careers.
There are two presentations of images – one a family album and the other a behind the scenes collage of images. Some of these amazing images come direct from the Beales’ personal collection and they are truly beautiful to behold; a time capsule of their times at Grey Gardens. The BTS photos are wonderful too and further give insight to the relationship made and fostered during filming and beyond. There is even a gallery of the cats (and raccoon) which co-habited with the Edies.
Trailer and TV Spot
Lush greens, smiling faces, singing and a real lyrical quality to the trailer – if that doesn’t make you watch, nothing will.