Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2015 4:15 pm 
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Visiting the Beale ladies

This look into the cloistered but oddly sprightly lives of two aristocratic wrecks has become a cult film and is perhaps the Maysles brothers' most famous documentary film, though their debut feature Salesman and the rock and roll nightmare Gimme Shelter are also serious contenders. Boring, annoying, repetitious, fascinating, hilarious, and depressing by turns, it's one of Albert Maysles' studies in humanistic sympathy unique enough to have been made into a 2006 musical that played on Broadway and won several awards and many nominations. Why is this film famous? Many reasons, though it takes time to perceive them. First of all, there are the essential ingredients of an observational documentary: patience, sympathy, good access -- and good editors. David and his brother Albert Maysle visit repeatedly one summer, filming this eccentric, politely squabbling pair of recluses who argue over the missed opportunities of the past. Albert announces them as "the gentlemen callers" when they arrive, in an opening segment, showing that the Maysles will be known presences in this film, not invisible as in, for instance, Salesman. Sometimes the ladies address them, flirt with them, even feed them spread on crackers, as at a cocktail party.

"Grey Gardens" was the name of the decrepit 28-room East Hampton beach-side mansion occupied by Jackie Kennedy's reclusive aunt and cousin, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale. "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," as they were known, lived in disarray, with cats, raccoons and other animals in the attic (whom LIttle Edie leaves food for). The big garden is totally overgrown. When the film one day shows Little Edie go down to the water for a swim -- she proves an excellent swimmer, a key perhaps to her good figure -- Albert pans back to reveal the extremely large and elegant neighbor houses. (A website for the house reports Martha Stewart now lives down the street.) Both ladies seem to survive on a diet of pâté and ice cream. The health department has made "raids" on the house and with financial help from help from Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwil it's been "cleaned up," but we see only a couple of messy rooms. Still photos and descriptions from other sources indicate much of the house was a garbage-ridden horror smelling badly of animals; but the Maysles are very sparing in documenting this, preferring to focus on the ladies and their interactions. This film is about them, and how, with some bravery and panache, they survive amid the wreckage.

Archetypal recluses living on a diet of dreams, memories, resentments, and regrets, the two Edies are like northern versions of characters in a Tennessee Williams play. Though nothing much happens, they still put on quite a show. We enjoy their clothes, their accents, and their high-level dysfunctionality. To begin with, both former beauties, socialites, and singing talents (Bit Edie did some successful cabaret), the ladies keep the visuals interesting by dressing in a vivid succession of startling, varied, improvised outfits, bathrobes or overly revealing tucks for the bosomy, bespectacled, 80-year-old Big Edie, colorful turbans and revealing matching wraps or bathing suits for Little Edie, these always secured (at a different place) by the same gold butterfly broach. Sometimes Little Edie hasn't done her makeup and comes to the door an alien, without eyebrows. Has she no hair, or terrible hair; or is she just unwilling to be seen badly coiffed? Anyway, she never, never appears without a different turban. With her cultivated tan, when fully made up Little Edie is attractive; as her mother says, "you look very young for 56 years of age." It shows that she was a fashion model, among other things. And she likes to sing and dance and perform for Albert's camera. A performance she does with a little American flag is a show-stopper. Where have Albert and David been all these years? she wonders, at one point, suggesting David might be a suitable mate. One of the topics the two Edies ruminate and argue over are the many possible husbands Little Edie at various stages has rejected. At one point Little Edie expresses the realization that she could never accept a man who was not musical, an element lacking with various stockbrokers and tennis players.

Partly the ladies are playing for the camera, partly for each other or just for themselves: their "performances" are auditions, debates, and diaries. They engage in nonstop dialogues, Big Edie always seated or in bed, Little Edie usually on her feet or with her long, shapely gams fetchingly crossed to show off white high-heeled shoes. From time to time the dialogue turns into overlapping monologues. Little Edie, who has a conspiratorial, paranoid and superstitious streak and likes to read from a horoscope book, comes up fisheye- and whisper-close to the camera to murmur confidences, suspicions, or complaints. She can't stand another winter here. Her mother, or so she claims, drove away the only recent suitor, a 25-years-younger penniless Russian refugee, a relative of the Obolensky family.

At the time of Big Edie's 80th birthday, an unidentified couple arrives, wine is served, a cake is brought out, and the couple promptly departs. From tie to time there is a black handyman named Brooke, for whom Big Edie writes a check. More often there is Jerry,* a pretty 20-something assistant gardener to neighbors with luxuriant hair who seems a hanger-on, and whom Little Edie calls the "Marble Faun," the allusion to Hawthorne belying her very spotty education, as revealed by her misquoting the opening of Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Certainly an apt title, though.

On release this film was attacked as cruel voyeurism. But Albert Maysles, whose long career was marked by love an humanism, said that was because people were disturbed by the individualism of the Beale ladies. "Their days are spent not on the pursuit of success or social recognition," he said, "but on cherishing their conflicted loving relationship, entertaining each other (and us) with witticisms, wordplay, songs, poetry, dancing, and recitations of memories of their past."

Grey Gardens, 100 mins., debuted at the New York Film Festival; other festivals. Filmed by David Maysles and Albert Maysles; edited by codirectors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer. Viewed in 2006 Criterion Collection DVD, with commentary. A remastered theatrical print came out in March 2015 just after the death of Albert Maysles at 88. Besides the musical, there was also a 2009 HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the two Edies. In a 2014 Sight and Sound poll, film critics voted Grey Gardens the joint ninth best documentary film of all time (shared with Pennebaker's Bob Dylan doc Don't Look Back). There is a Maysles sequel of outtakes called The Beales of Grey Gardens. From that here's all about Jerry on YouTube.

Included in the Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival organized by David L. Brown at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco, May 8 - 14, 2015. See my full coverage on Filmleaf.

*Jerry Torre. He now has his own documentary, The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens recounting his life since the film.


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