Grey Gardens Review

The Mayles Brothers precede reality TV by a number of years, and far surpass any human interest level, with this documentary on the unusual lives of the Beales of Grey Gardens. Noel Megahey reviews the UK Masters of Cinema release.

The idea of filming the lives of a family or group of wannabe/has-been celebrities cooped up uncomfortably together in a house, playing out their eccentricities, their insecurities and their illusions to a camera and the general public probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal in the era of reality television with shows like The Osbournes and Big Brother. When the Maysles Brother filmed Grey Gardens in 1975 however – a documentary that opened up the lives of a reclusive mother and daughter, former New York socialites and relatives of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, living in squalor in their dilapidated East Hampton home – the reaction was similar to the charges thrown around at reality TV shows of today, that of exploitation, intrusion and voyeurism. It’s influence, for better or worse, is evident in the references made above, but for the Maysles brothers, it was an extension of their unconventional approach to documentary filmmaking, to capture cinéma verité and a new form of direct cinema.

Much as they had done with their groundbreaking 1969 feature Salesman, the Maysles would extend the boundaries of documentary filmmaking – and by their personal intervention even go as far as breaking some of the established rules of the medium – by allowing the essential human element of their subjects to come through. Contrary to Salesman or most other documentary features up to then, where the presence of the filmmakers was reduced to a non-interventionist fly-on-the-wall position, in Grey Gardens their presence and their relationship with the eighty year-old Mrs Edith Beale and her 56-year-old unmarried daughter Edie is essential for bringing to the surface the underlying complexities and complexes of the mother-daughter relationship.

A former singer, the older Edith has been forced due to ill-health associated with her age to retire to her East Hampton mansion, its former splendour reduced to almost squalor. Her daughter Edie has been looking after her for many years, having to renounce her own ambitions as a writer or stage performer and – as becomes clear in her bitterness towards her mother – give up any hope for a suitable marriage. Holed-up together, unable to leave their home and with no reason to, the two women live a timeless hermetic existence, remote and detached from the real world, each nursing their grudges but mutually dependent on each other. Despite Edie’s constant threats to leave and return to New York, they are both fearful of not having each other. Without her daughter, there would be no-one to look after the elderly lady, and without her mother, Edie would have no-one to both affirm the prospects she believes she once had and blame for her failure to achieve them.

This complex arrangement clearly existed long before the Maysles Brothers showed up, fascinated by their initial meeting of the women and the conditions in which they were living – a state that had led to action being taken against them by the local health authorities. However when they arrive with their camera, the Maysles provide just such an appreciative audience that the women – Edie in particular – have longed for – the mother happily demonstrating that she still has a voice that made a recording of “Tea for Two”, by singing along in accompaniment, her 56 year-old daughter, regressed back to childhood due to the unconventional arrangement, performing dances whenever she is able to get away from the critical eye of her mother. The Maysles are welcomed as “gentleman callers”, and as we get to know the women and the nature of their circumstances, the situation is indeed like something out of Tennessee Williams, Edie’s glass menagerie here a real one of numerous cats and raccoons in the attic of the dilapidated house. The bitterness of “Little” Edie’s feelings towards her mother is clearly evident, believing that she has chased off any eligible, interested former suitors, while Edith confesses that she can’t let her daughter go, otherwise who would look after her.

Early in their career, the Maysles were greatly influenced by Truman Capote’s docu-fiction In Cold Blood and their work has strived to bring out that sense of reality and inner truth that only a fictional construct can obtain. With Grey Gardens the brothers come closest to that aim. It contains all the grotesque and gothic qualities of Tennessee Williams’ dramatic fiction (and undertones and imagery that are scarily close to both Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard), but here it is utterly real and deeply human, and consequently all the more heartfelt, tragic as well as comically entertaining.

DVDGrey Gardens is released in the UK by Eureka under their Masters of Cinema imprint and is #43 in the series. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format and is not region encoded.

VideoLicensed from Maysles Films, the transfer on Grey Gardens is hard to fault. Any issues with the softness of the image, grain and the lack of strong definition in the colours are more to do with the original 16mm film stock and the shooting conditions, which are often interiors. There are however no flaws or damage to the print and nothing in the way of digital artefacts incurred in the transfer process to DVD.

AudioAs with the Masters of Cinema release of Salesman, the original audio track can occasionally be difficult to decipher, since the characters often freely roam away from any proximity to the microphone. The very nature of the film itself doesn’t really allow for high-fidelity sound recording, so what is presented here is pretty much as good as the original materials allow. Despite these problems, the dialogue is mainly clearly audible, and full optional English captions are provided on the DVD which can be referred to on-the-fly for any less audible exchanges.

SubtitlesThe captions, as noted above, are quite comprehensive, capturing as much of the dialogues as possible as well as incidental information. They do often stretch to three lines, in an effort to be as complete as possible and keep up with the exchanges. They subtitles are in a white font, clearly readable and are of course optional.

ExtrasIt’s a bit random and unstructured, but there are a few interesting observations made in a recent interview with Albert Maysles on Grey Gardens (30:57), the filmmaker making some observations on the Maysles’ relationship with the press, and specifically on Grey Gardens, Albert reading Edie’s reply to one particularly nasty piece of journalism in the New York Times about the film. As well as recounting how the film came to be made, Albert also gives some thoughts on documentary filmmaking in general. Filmed by Albert Maysles in 2005, Jerry’s Cab (9:43) records a meeting between the filmmaker and the Beales’ live-in worker and gardener who appears in the film. He reminisces on his time in the house and talks about his relationship with the ladies, providing more information about the state and contents of the house. Bringing him back to Grey Gardens, Past & Present (11:20), Jerry compares how the house looks now with how it was during the time of the Beales. The original Theatrical Trailer (2:14) and TV Trailer (0:37) are also included. The best feature however is the accompanying 40-page Booklet, which collects fabulous stills, newspaper clippings and an excellent, long essay on the film by Jonathan B Vogels, which examines the film in some depth, with many insightful observations on the film’s achievements and what it reveals about the Beale’s mother-daughter relationship.

OverallIt may indeed be somewhat voyeuristic and occasionally uncomfortable to watch, but Grey Gardens strength is its truthfulness. The skill of the Maysles Brothers is again in understanding the nature of documentary filmmaking, and that like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, truth can be found even with the intervention of an authorial hand. They take full advantage of such an approach and in doing so manage to bring out the true-life drama, humour and the essential human qualities that can be derived from their intervention, without demeaning or exploiting their subjects. If the achievements of Grey Gardens have been somewhat denigrated by the modern phenomenon of reality TV, the legacy of the film lives on in the enormous following that the film has achieved by those sympathetic to the Beale’s plight and fascinated by their human qualities and failings. This has led to Edie being seen as a fashion icon, the subject turned into an off-Broadway musical and possibly a future feature film as well as giving rise to a follow-up film by the Maysles Brothers in 2006, The Beales of Grey Gardens, taken from the hours of unused footage shot during the making of this film. Sadly, that is not included here (although there is a Criterion Collection edition of it available), but the original Grey Gardens remains an important and relevant documentary film, one worthy of being placed alongside the other titles in the Masters of Cinema catalogue, and the feature has accordingly been given the kind of treatment on DVD that we have come to expect from the label.


Updated: May 03, 2007

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