923 (64). Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer)

screened July 16 2008 on Criterion DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #824 IMDb Wiki

Arguably the most complex and controversial work in the storied career of cinema verite pioneers Albert and David Maysles is this intimate study of Edith Bouvier and “Little” Edie Beale, two relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis secluded in a dilapidated estate in the Hamptons. Detractors may cite it as a watershed in unleashing the documentary medium’s most exploitive tendencies, and draw a damning line connecting this “reality” expose of the sordid lives of two pseudo-celebrities to its legions of modern television progeny. However, one attribute that sets the film miles apart from its successors is its non-linear, fugue-like narrative structure, in which time seems to stand still and the same day seems to be lived over and over with slight variations, emblematizing the experiences of both mother and daughter. The film is a masterpiece of editing, weaving over a hundred hours of footage to create a world that is hermetically sealed while containing dozens of fragmented moments reflecting two lifetimes of recycled memories and shattered dreams. The surreal outcome – perhaps inevitable given the subjects’ remove from reality – further conflates the film’s status as both documentary and fiction. The Maysles’ draw attention to their own active role as documentarians (as well as instigators) of the daily drama being played out between Big and Little Edie, while fulfilling Edie’s long-deferred dream of stardom. Their self-reflexive veracity only raises further questions about the methodology of this documentary, as well as that of all others.

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The following ballots were considered in tabulating Grey Gardens’ ranking in the TSPDT 1000:

Amy Nicholson PBS Independent Lens (2006)
Goro Toshima PBS Independent Lens (2006)
Megan Spencer Senses of Cinema (2001)
Patrick Macias Senses of Cinema (2003)
 Entertainment Weekly The Top 50 Cult Movies (19??)
 Pop Matters The 50 DVD’s Every Film Fan Should Own: The Stellar 70’s (2007)
 The Guardian 1,000 Films to See Before You Die (2007)

Official page on Maysles Films website

“Official” fan site

About Little Edie Beale

My Grey Gardens, a tribute site by Robb Brawn, Philadelphia musician and friend of “Little” Edie Beale, containing information on “Little” Edie, the documentary, and the musical.

From an obituary published January 17, 2002 on Gay Wired:

Little Edie’s over-the-top eye for wardrobe was one of her most immediately noticed characteristics. In the opening scenes of Grey Gardens, audiences were introduced to Little Edie clad in a clingy brown turtleneck, a pair of sun pants pinned around her waist as a makeshift skirt and what could only be identified as a sheer nun’s wimple on her head. Casually explaining what she called her “costume for the day,” Little Edie said to the filmmakers, “I have to make these things up. Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono and we had quite a fight.”

In the greater pop culture lexicon, the film and its subjects have enjoyed an occasional tip of the hat, but rarely enjoyed mainstream recognition. Among the scattered references in past years, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright included a musical tribute to Little Edie on his last album, Poses; Madonna’s Sex book photographer Steven Meisel shot a fashion pictorial for Italian Vogue in 1999, featuring an image on the magazine’s cover of a model decked out in Edie’s signature “revolutionary costume” of a sweater wrapped around her head, tacked in place by an ornate brooch.

Soon after the movie’s initial 1976 theatrical release by Portrait Films, “Big” Edith Beale passed away at the age of 80 and Little Edie vacated the decaying estate of Grey Gardens. In 1978, Little Edie briefly pursued a career as a cabaret performer with a New York-based show in which she sang standards like “As Time Goes By” and her mother’s favorite, “Tea For Two.” The show also featured a question-and-answer session for fans curious about life after Grey Gardens and the world according to Edie. (When asked about her views on premarital sex, she responded simply, “It’s economical.”)

Despite the praise of fans, critical pans put a quick end to Little Edie’s cabaret career. She ultimately retreated to Bal Harbour, where she lived comfortably among her memorabilia and poetry. Little Edie is quoted as saying that when her mother was on her deathbed, she said there was nothing more to say because everything she wanted to tell the world was said in the Maysles’ film. “To my mother and me,” said Little Edie in one interview, “Grey Gardens is a breakthrough to something beautiful and precious called life.”

Interview with Jerry Torre, the “Marble Faun”, now a NYC cabbie

Original trailer:

History and cultural significance

In the mid-1970s, documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (most known for Gimme Shelter, their 1970 documentary chronicling the 1969 Rolling Stones concert in which a spectator was killed by members of Hell’s Angels) were approached by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwell. She was interested in commissioning the brothers to develop some sort of filmic “family album”, allowing them access to various relatives and friends. Two particularly curious relatives that came to light were an aunt and cousin, both of whom were named Edith Bouvier Beale and resided in a mansion in East Hampton, Long Island. The name of the estate was “Grey Gardens”. At the time, the property had become a controversial issue in the community due to the extreme neglect and squalid living conditions of the residents. The conditions were so substandard that the Beales were warned by the county’s board of health with threats of eviction unless something was done about it. Finding these two characters and their circumstances so intriguing, Albert and David took their cameras and entered the lives of these women and their unusual world within the walls of “Grey Gardens”.

When the Maysles eventually showed a rough cut of their footage of the Beales to Lee Radziwell, she was appalled and immediately demanded the negative which they gave her. Regardless of whether she destroyed it or not, it was obvious that Radziwell did not want the public to know about her aunt and cousin. Ironically, Edith Beale (Big Edie) and Edie (Little Edie), had so enjoyed being filmed by the Maysles that they invited them to come back a year later and continue their project which became the feature documentary, Grey Gardens (1975).

Over the years, Grey Gardens has been scrutinized, over-analyzed and viewed repeatedly by fervent fans. But for detractors of the movie, the most common criticism has been that it is nothing more than exploitation and in bad taste. In many cases, the Maysles were accused of taking advantage of two sad, deluded women. One critic, complained about the Maysles’ disregard for the Beales’s privacy or personal dignity, “Like the shots of ‘Little’ Edith Bouvier Beale, a large 56-year-old, taken from below as she climbs upstairs in a miniskirt, rambling to herself; or ‘Big’ Edith, the demanding 79-year-old mother, with her towel falling off her withered, naked body.” What the Maysles realized in most of these attacks was that the reviewer was reflecting his own fears of aging and death. Viewers with any empathy for the human condition, however, can see moments of truth and beauty in Grey Gardens. While it is important to note that although the Beales were certainly playing to the camera to a degree, their interaction with each other accurately mirrored their day-to-day existence. Albert Maysles confirmed this when he described the filming process: “Each day we would pause nearby, get out of our car to change our clothes or whatever, we could hear their conversations in the distance and it was the same statements of love and resentment and arguing and so forth – exactly the same character we got on film.”

The Beales’ influence on pop culture continues to resonate, especially on the internet where fans of the film have created music videos and homemade movies as a homage to the Beales. Many of these appear on the enormously popular media sharing website, youtube.com, and one of the most interesting videos is a re-envisioning of Little Edie dancing to the catchy, disco-inspired Madonna tune, “Hung Up”.

Eric Weber, Turner Classic Movies

The International Documentary Association (IDA) ranks Grey Gardens as number nine among the top documentaries of all time. It has been honored at the Edinburgh, Cannes, and New York film festivals. A classic in the “direct cinema” genre, which brothers David and Albert Maysles pioneered through such films as Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), Grey Gardens is the story of “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter “Little Edie” and the overgrown, crumbling East Hampton mansion they shared for decades with assorted cats, fleas, and raccoons. Direct cinema is a documentary film genre characterized initially by a desire to directly capture reality and represent it truthfully, and to question the relationship of reality with cinema. It is said to rely on an agreement among the filmmaker, subjects, and audience to act as if the presence of the camera does not (substantially) alter the recorded event.

The making of Grey Gardens actually came about by accident. Impressed with their work, the Maysles were approached by Lee Radziwill and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, about doing a documentary about their lives growing up in the Bouvier family. Their family, of course, included their eccentric aunt and cousin in East Hampton.

The brothers agreed to make the film; they shot footage over two weeks and immediately came to a startling realization: the charming and eccentric Beales would make much better film subjects than Jackie and Lee. As such, the Bouvier family documentary was quickly scrapped, much to the dismay of Lee. She, however, confiscated the initial footage of the Beales (reportedly over one and a half hours) and it has yet to see the light of day. There are rumors that she plans to release the footage sometime in the future.

The Maysles spent close to $50,000 on film and equipment before they went back to visit the Beales with their new proposal a year later. The women were ecstatic with the prospect of being filmed; it not only might offer them the fame that Jackie and Lee were accustom to, but would also give them the chance to make some much-needed money. The Maysles’ offer included an advance of $10,000 ($5,000 for Big Edie and $5,000 for Little Edie) and 20 percent of the future profits. With the green light, the Maysles, along with co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, filmed the Beales for approximately six weeks in the fall of 1973. They practically lived at the mansion and resorted to wearing flea collars around their ankles to keep the bugs at bay.

It took Hovde, Meyer, and Susan Froemke two years to edit the over 70 hours of film into a coherent story. The importance of the editors is obvious but often overlooked, as film editing can certainly make or break a film. The dynamic and creative roles of these three women are responsible for pulling together the complex elements of this unscripted slice of life. Any other collaboration of editors would have certainly produced an entirely different film.

The film debuted on September 21, 1975 in the upstairs hall of Grey Gardens; David, Al, Lois, Brooks, Little Edie, and Big Edie were there. They loved the film. Little Edie apparently remarked that she would be moving to Paris after the profits came rolling in. It was later showcased at the 1975 New York Film Festival. The movie made its public premier at the Paris Theater (located across from the Plaza Hotel) in Manhattan on February 20, 1976. It played there for just one week to mixed reviews from the New York Times and Village Voice. Audiences were both captivated and appalled at what they saw; many people viewed the Maysles as voyeurs and exploitive of the Beales. Little Edie even famously wrote a rebuttal letter to one critic that called the Beales a “circus sideshow.”

It enjoyed limited box office success at the various art house theaters it played across the country. Even with the later release of VHS and DVD versions of the film (both stateside and abroad), Maysles Films says that Grey Gardens still has yet to make a profit (the Maysles financed the film completely themselves and it is estimated that it cost close to half a million dollars to make). Both Criterion and Masters of Cinema (current distributors of the DVD versions of the film) do not release current sales figures to the public, but admit that Grey Gardens is one of their most popular titles.

Notes on the documentary from the Grey Gardens Online website

The Grey Gardens estate today:

Historical reviews

“I’ve seen GREY GARDENS four times! I felt that I was looking at two eccentric women and I was embarrassed, but the fault was in me, because slowly but surely I was opened to these women on any number of levels that I’m still exploring.” — Judith Crist, 1974

It is difficult to ascertain what the subject of the film really is, or the reason it was made. The Maysles brothers have al ways been inveterate seekers after the phantom of documentary “truth.” This quest has been hampered by the peculiar insularity of their vision and by its glib spontaneity. In Grey Gardens they do not mean to be cruel to the Beales, al though they are. The movie has some slender justification as a piece of psychological reporting, about the ways two people rely on each other and torture each other. But all we see — perhaps all anyone could ever see — are the bitter ness and the desperation, not how and why they began. Without the powers of art to enrich and transform, Grey Gardens remains an aimless act of ruptured privacy and an exploitation.

Jay Cocks, Time, March 1, 1976

Grey Gardens,” one of the most haunting documentaries in a long time, preserves their strange existence, and we’re pleased that it does. It expands our notions of the possibilities. It’s about two classic eccentrics, two people who refuse to live the way they’re supposed to, but by the film’s end we see that they live fully, in ways of their own choosing.

Moments: Edie feeding the raccoons a loaf of Wonder Bread. Edith placidly observing that a cat is defecating behind her portrait. Edie, nearsighted, standing on a scales and reading her weight with binoculars. Edith confessing that she can’t turn around just at the moment because her bathing suit has no back. The two women at night, alone in their room, the crumbling mansion extending around them, listening to old songs and replaying old memories. Me for you, and you for me, can’t you see, how happy we will be.

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 10, 1976

Recent reviews

The cinema verite movement finally unveiled its exploitative heart with this unpleasant 1976 documentary on Edith Ewing Bouvier and her daughter Edie–two relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis living in squalor and oblivion amid the ruins of their East Hampton estate. David and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter) directed, with an attitude of curdling condescension clearly emerging from their vaunted “blank” style.

Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

You watch them trying to sing, listening to old records, reminiscing over old photographs, listening to a weird preacher on the radio, holding a birthday party, all under the unblinking eye of the Maysles’ lens. Edie also feeds the raccoons in the attic and dances for the camera. A lot. The impression you get is that each night the Maysles would go home rubbing their hands together gleefully in anticipation of whatever freakshow the next day would bring (however, they actually stayed in touch with Edie after the film was completed).

Oddly, although Jackie Onassis is the only reason anyone heard of them in the first place, she barely gets a mention. With plenty of people living their lives on camcorder these days, there are probably a few more of these documentaries waiting to be made. There are no great insights into the human condition here, you’ll just feel ill after watching this. Depressing.

Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

It 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.

Noel Megahey, DVD Times

Compared to the plays of Tennessee Williams, the film has more the tone of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — it’s Great Expectations as conceived by Beckett and Ionesco. Playing Pip are the Maysleses themselves (“David, where have you been all my life?” sings Little Edie during a flag-waving turn to music from the Virginia Military Academy), and the question of who’s exploiting whom becomes moot indeed. Directorial credit should go at least partly to the Beales, as the camera seldom wanders from them, drifting occasionally to spot a cat urinating behind a haunting, Sargent-esque portrait of Big Edie in her prime, or to take in a brilliant patch of the ocean. (“What a beautiful shade of blue,” says Little Edie. “What is it? Sapphire?”)

What jewel does Grey Gardens recover from this rough? The film is a high-camp cult classic, with aficionados quoting key lines. As a textbook case of acted-out co-dependent dysfunction, it’s a prototype of Jerry Springer. Mostly, though, in its unholy collaboration of morbid media and rabid celebrity, it’s prophetic of today’s gardens of media delights that have rendered the borders between fact and fiction, news and titillation, and art and obscenity gray indeed.

Peter Keough, The Boston Phoenix

In the history of film there have been some characters so distinct and memorable that they can be remembered outside of the context of the film in which they appeared: Rhett and Scarlett, Rick and Ilsa, Norman, Vito, Travis, Tyler. Little Edie definitely belongs on that list. She’s different in one important way: She is totally real. Little Edie… is a blur, a constantly shape-shifting creature who redefines fashion, language, attitude, and emotion. It’s no wonder that little Edie has left a lasting impression on many of the people that have seen the film (several significant fashion designers give video testimonials to Edie’s influence on them in the disc’s supplemental section). Throughout the film she remains an incredibly sympathetic character, as she fights, complains, cries, laughs, and dances around her crumbling house, a sweater wrapped around her head, dressed in her ever changing assortment of “costumes”. The charm and uniqueness of Edie makes Grey Gardens an absolutely stunning achievement and required viewing.

Gil Jawetz, DVD Talk

The women’s conversations with each other speak volumes…sometimes, a little too much. We get a sense of the full love/hate/happy/sad relationship between a mother and daughter, but frankly, sometimes it’s a little much. They speak over one another constantly until the words become an almost indecipherable cacophony, and even the subtitles on the DVD can’t always keep up with them. We never really learn the answers to the questions we want to know, like how did two members of the Bouvier family end up living in such isolation and squalor? Some facts are hinted act, such as that Big Edie’s ex-husband may have made off with their money, but nothing is made clear. All that’s left really is the juxtaposition of the Beales’ lives and fantasies against the harsh, ugly background of their living conditions. I hesitate to use the word surreal, but I’m hard pressed to come up with a more suitable adjective.

Michael Jacobson, DVD Movie Central

Grey Gardens has almost gone mainstream. OK, it’s completely gone mainstream. And though I love the idea of Edith and Little Edie Beale gaining worldwide popularity, I’m leery about one of my favorite documentaries acted on the big screen. There’s the Broadway musical, which both Beales might have delighted in, but there’s also that possible future movie, something Little Edie was against. Watching the Maysles’ famed documentary Grey Garden in the newer Criterion Edition (and returning to this review, tweaked and extended from my original at Willamette Week when I saw the film on the big screen), we see an added scene in which Little Edie discusses her unhappiness about a possible biopic… And this is one reason why she agreed to the Maysles very revealing documentary–Edie should play Edie. And indeed she did.

Kim Morgan, Sunset Gun

Lengthier analyses

The peculiar opening scenes of the Maysles 1976 film, Grey Gardens, signals that the viewer is about to watch a film that is not going to fulfill expectations for either a traditional expository documentary or, for that matter, a direct cinema documentary as defined by Robert Drew and the Maysles during the 1960s. The first ten minutes or so of the film echoes the themes, motifs and moods found in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil plays, as well as the self-reflexive distancing devices in those of playwright Bertold Brecht. The viewer receives subliminal clues that what is about to unfold is neither a traditional linear narrative nor the dramatic crisis structure that typify earlier direct cinema films – and even the Maysles own Christo films. There are also cues that the film will take the form of an experimental character study – a character study that more nearly resembles Picasso’s fractured cubist portraits with multiple perspectives from different vantage points.

The montage sequence near the beginning of Grey Gardens (consisting of stills from newspaper articles) in itself provides a clear message that the film deviates from the precepts of direct cinema in a number of significant ways. Direct cinema eschews any form of montage in favor of strict chronological footage as well as any reference to the filmmaking process. But in Grey Gardens, a newspaper photo of David and Albert introduces the filmmakers as major participants in the unfolding cinematic story. Direct verbal exchanges between the on-screen subjects and the filmmakers throughout Grey Gardens provide further acknowledgement of the filmmaking process. It is an open admission of the fact that the film, as authentic as it may be, is also a subjective cinematic construct of a filmmaking collaboration.

Critics challenged the authenticity of Grey Gardens upon its release because the subjects, Edith and Edie Beale, were merely performing for the camera and therefore not behaving as they would ordinarily behave without the presence of Albert’s camera. This criticism, moreover, provided some critics with additional ammunition to discredit the goals and techniques of the entire direct cinema movement. But a strong counterargument can be made. For one thing, both of the subjects of Grey Gardens, Edith and Edie Beale, were individuals who genuinely enjoyed performing on and off camera, and they had done so on a daily basis throughout their lives. Furthermore, by permitting reflections of themselves to appear in mirrors, along with direct verbal exchanges, at several points throughout the film, the filmmakers repeatedly acknowledge their presence in the Beale’s lives. This acknowledgment underscores the Maysles’ belief that their respectful relationships with their subjects override any risk of distorting their behavior. The entire approach of Grey Gardens – as with Salesman – rests implicitly upon the belief that “a certain amount of performing in everyday life represents a healthy form of ‘self-expression’” (Vogels, page 135). The fundamental question that Grey Gardens raises – and answers – is whether any behavior consciously performed in front of a camera becomes a less “authentic” manifestation of true inner character than behavior not consciously performed in front of a camera.

Joel Silvers, “The Empathetic Left Eye of Albert Maysles

Indeed, Little Edie is always performing for the camera. This is why the presence of the Maysles is necessary in the film. She constantly addresses them, flirts and jokes with them. Performance is what drives Little Edie: appearance, clothes, literary allusions (Robert Frost, Hawthorne), public image. Trapped in her own lost past, Little Edie has become a simulacrum of herself. Her existence is all performance, and she constantly needs an audience. If not New York, to which she longs to return, then the Maysles’ camera. If not the Maysles, her mother.

For Big Edie, the act of performance is subtler. She pretends not to care about the camera, casually mentioning she might be naked or demurely remembering her past. But she requires an audience just as much as her daughter: she sings along to a record of her own youthful voice, she tells stories of her abortive career on the stage. The two Edies have performed for one another for so long that the camera is only another participant; they would continue to do show off even if the Maysles were not there. Perhaps, in the end, this is the very function of aristocracy in America: to become spectacle. In their need to be on the public stage at any cost, they have trapped themselves. They dance around one another in circles, the same thing day after day (and if the film has a major flaw at all, it is in this repetitive structure—but perhaps that is exactly the point). They support one another psychologically by showing off all their joy and rage and frustration. As Big Edie says, “You can’t get any freedom when you’re being supported.” And even without money, without servants, without paparazzi and celebrity, the Beales still need to perform for us. They need our approval and support. And we still need to watch.

Mike Pinsky, DVD Verdict

The documentary runs along the lines of “direct cinema,” where the filmmakers’ goal is to passively present “the truth” by recording real-life events in as unobtrusive manner as possible, avoiding any scripted or predetermined sequences. Then, a shaped picture of that “truth” is assembled in the editing room. As Albert says (in a somewhat startling statement):
“I feel confident I can take on the responsibility of telling the truth about another person’s life. Attention must be paid and I am paying that attention. I am doing something of good for the film, for the people I film, for the people who have the opportunity to share the process that I am filming. And I like people.”

Watching Grey Gardens of course, one immediately sees the nonsense of declaring such a victory in the name of “truth,” or to be more accurate, the uselessness of declaring that the subjects’ “essential truth” has been uncovered in a non-biased way by the filmmakers — as if some overall objective, omniscient viewpoint has been achieved without the slightest hint of directorial or editorial intervention. The Maysles’ presence is obvious in many scenes, where they directly interact with their subjects. Quite often, you can hear one of them complimenting or engaging Big or Little Edie in conversation. So you should throw out the notion that the Maysles are somehow capturing unadulterated reality in Grey Gardens. They are firmly a part of the process of capturing their reality of the Beales’ situation on the screen, and are thus not separated from it.

Which of course brings us to the question of whether or not what the Maysles’ were doing was fair to Big or Little Edie — a question that Albert Maysles either dismisses out of hand as irrelevant or answers with an affirmation that these women wanted this exposure, and that he was only giving them what they wanted. He backs up this argument with the frequent statements Big and Little Edie made supporting the film after it premiered. Watching Albert in the new (2006) interview included in this DVD, it seems like a subject he’s dealt with many times before, and that he’s above reacting to now. Obviously, the morality of the debate is a done deal for him. But I would imagine viewers new to Grey Gardens (as well as other Maysles films) will still debate the ethics of the Maysles brothers’ technique as long as the film is shown. I’ve always been uncomfortable by the effect of Grey Gardens, even though I find the film infinitively fascinating. It’s a cliche, but watching Grey Gardens is like watching an automobile wreck: you can’t look away, but you feel crummy about yourself after you’ve satisfied your curiosity. While the Maysles brothers often defended the film as some kind of revelation of beauty in uncommon lives, which they then transpose (and further validate) by saying we’re all in some way like Big and Little Edie, I find that explanation, at best, glib and facile. As filmmakers, the Maysles brothers had to know a socko story when they saw one, and the notoriety of this particular family, along with the almost Grand Guignol quality of the women’s actual lifestyle and interaction, must have excited them first on a purely exploitation level — this will make a great film! — before they convinced themselves, and the women (who may not have been in the best state of mind to judge their own portrayals on film), that what they were doing was good for the Beales and for the cinema audience.

As well, it doesn’t help Grey Gardens supposed high ground when you learn that that particular scene occurred quite early in the filming process, but was reshuffled in the film’s sequence of events. Anyone watching that scene towards the end of the film would think this was Little Edie finally crying out about the miseries of her life, but knowing that the Maysles brothers deliberately tacked it on as a strong finisher for their film tends to negate the notion that their technique captures the true essence of Big and Little Edie’s life. Individual scenes in Grey Gardens may be true, but Grey Gardens as an entity in and of itself, is merely an approximation of the Maysles brothers’ idea of what is true or not true about the Beales. One can even argue the notion of how “true” those individual scenes are, when you take into account the brothers’ frequent interaction with the subjects (it’s a little creepy when you hear one of them complimenting Little Edie from off-camera; it sounds like nothing more than a filmmaker keeping his subject sweet so as not to end the project), as well as the impact the presence of the cameras had on the subjects’ behavior (it’s obvious that Little Edie often plays up to the camera, enjoying the heightened dramatics of the moment — along with the filmmakers’ attention to her). Perhaps that’s the trouble I’ve always had with Grey Gardens: the Maysles’ defense of it and their involvement with the finished product. Always assuming a moral high ground when discussing Grey Gardens, and yet at the same time coming off as obviously defensive about the criticism, they’ve never struck me as being totally honest about their culpability, if you will, in the shaped “reality” that shows up on screen. If they had been honest right from the start, and declared that they had caught this utterly strange, mesmerizing “show” on camera, without the phoney aesthetical defense of the film, I’d have a lot more respect for them as filmmakers. The film would still make me uncomfortable, I would imagine, but at least I wouldn’t feel like I was getting away with something that I knew was ultimately a lie: enjoying a perverse spectacle and calling it a beautiful “absolute truth.”

Paul Mavis, DVD Talk

Grey Gardens materializes very concretely the horizon of possibility for the Edies’ interaction with and intervention in the world, and it is hardly incidental that Grey Gardens is a film about a mother and daughter living together in the family home; no accident that Little Edie’s brothers are nowhere in sight, save for in photographs. Given the limits—both historically and contemporarily—placed on women’s autonomy, the female child, much more than the male, will be subject to the rule of the house and the domestic sphere which tend to define, limit, and circumscribe her range of actions within the world. As Mark Wigley has written in a critical analysis of the place of gender in Albertian architectural theory, “. . . the role of architecture is explicitly the control of sexuality, or more precisely, women’s sexuality, the chastity of the girl, the fidelity of the wife.” Grey Gardens gives evidence of this program of control. In many ways both Edies are victims of and subject to the house in which they live. But the film also gives evidence of the Edies’ own program of resistance to the strict norms of good housekeeping.

Little Edie’s improvised outfits, in which a jumper becomes a turban, and a skirt is worn upside down, are of a piece with her understanding and her use—both practical and imaginary—of domestic space. Which is to say, we see here an acute awareness of the traditional nature of things and spaces and their uses, but also an awareness of the fluidity of all these and a confident nimbleness in subverting these traditional uses. A maid’s dining room becomes something else (we are never told just what); something to be worn on the torso is worn on the head; the past (and here a tone of mourning seeps in) becomes the present. The poetics of Little Edie’s discourse—the fluidity of [End Page 93] its concatenating forward motion—is one with the ludic logic of her fashion, is one with her awareness of the slipperiness of time.

This fluidity is also evident in the construction of the film, a fluidity that owes as much to its editing as to its shooting style; the ninety-four minute film that we see was whittled down out of a tremendous amount of film footage and sound recording. Ellen Hovde, who edited the film with Muffie Meyer, explains in an interview that when they sat down to edit they were dealing with “eighty hours of sync footage, and then seventy reels of wild track, and thirty to forty reels of other stuff.”19 Hovde explains that in the editing process she and Meyer placed at the end of the film footage that was recorded at the very beginning of the shoot.20 The labile quality of the film’s construction as an edited document follows the labile nature of life at Grey Gardens, in which any moment might be the portal to another moment. Little Edie’s sense of the flux of historical periods belongs (or has been imparted?) to the temporal and narrative ordering of the film itself, which, in Kenneth J. Robson’s words, is “associative and rhythmical.”21 The nature of the camera movement (all was shot with handheld cameras by David and Albert Maysles) is similarly fluid. When the Edies perform for the camera(s), it tends to focus on them—not able, presumably, to draw itself away; but there is also noticeable a mode of distraction in which the camera will slide away from the focus on the Edies in order to absorb, in an almost aleatory fashion, the details of their quotidian scene.

– from John David Rhodes, “Concentrated Ground: Grey Gardens and the Cinema of the Domestic,” published in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 47.1 (2006) 83-105

Albert Maysles Interviewed

“Back in 1976 the Times reviewer was Walter Goodman,” recalls Albert Maysles (his brother and collaborator David died in 1987), “and when he reviewed the film all his vast psychological problems came forth. He asked, why did we have to look at all this sagging flesh? Apparently he had a problem with aging. And Molly Haskell in the Village Voice was offended — the last line of her review said there are some people you shouldn’t film. I found that a condescending view of human nature. With the new release, we are luckier. The current New York Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, is a more positive person. She, of course, loved it.”

Perhaps Grey Gardens is now getting a more positive response because, in this era of shameless exposé journalism, the film seems almost quaint. It was, however one of the first works to showcase the turmoil and untidiness of private lives for entertainment, and to blur the line between strict, nonfictional recording of reality and the intervention of the filmmaker. So you could see it as a prototype of such present-day phenomena as tabloid talk shows, the ubiquitous airing of the president’s dirty laundry, and the fast and loose treatment of fact by filmmakers Oliver Stone and Michael Moore.

“It’s a disaster,” Maysles says of this last trend. “It’s something I’m very concerned about, this blurring that culminated in films like J.F.K. Today, even some documentary filmmakers brag about being `the line between fact and fiction.’ The result is a disruption of any faith in history.”

As for the sensationalizing of private lives, Maysles distinguishes his film from the excesses that have followed.

“I like to describe the goal of `direct cinema’ as life as it is — no better, no worse. For this kind of filmmaking, the biggest challenge is getting access. With Grey Gardens, we had it from the beginning. They trusted us, we trusted them. It’s something that my brother David and I learned growing up, to be accepting of all kinds of people.

“So I don’t see that we took the privacy of the Beales too far. Edie told me a story of how at her mother’s deathbed she asked her if she had anything more to say. She said it was all on the film. It was the performance of a lifetime.”

It’s a performance that the filmmakers respected. That, suggests Maysles, is what distinguishes his work from those of today.

“Then there are people like Geraldo. Somebody from the program called me without identifying who they were and asked if they could show segments. Then I saw the show; it was terrible. They had gained access to Edie, who is living in Miami, and taped her. Their thesis was that the Kennedys were the American equivalent of the British royal family, and like the royal family they had members who were black sheep, crazy or ‘retarded,’ that the family tried to hide. When I watch that, I can appreciate more what we accomplished with Grey Gardens. Can you imagine if Michael Moore had made that film?”

Albert Maysles interviewed in the Boston Phoenix

Johnny Leahan interviews Albert Maysles for indieWire, July 20, 2006:

iW: Well, thirty years later it’s still there. How do you feel about the state of documentary film now, thirty years on?

Al: Well, it – maybe this isn’t modest for me to say – but people who are practicing it have still yet to catch up with what we were doing… What we’ve been doing all these years, it’s so much more. Most documentary is still too old fashioned, with straight interviews… you know, anything to get away from the most vital device that it has, which is simply to let the camera not interfere.

iW: That’s as close to the truth as you can get really, unless there’s no camera at all.

Al: Well no camera at all would be worse because it would be without a brain. Or sensitivity. If we were able to stick a camera up in the hidden part of the Beales’ wall and let it run for a week, we still wouldn’t have had an audio visual representation of the women that would be as true.

iW: I agree. I think when the camera’s turned on, the subject is forced to consider their own story, and The Beales definitely had one. “Grey Gardens” obviously influenced scores of filmmakers, but it even influenced theater and fashion and so many other things. Did you ever dream the film would become such an iconic piece of work?

Al: All we cared about was getting it straight. And if there was drama developing you know, there we were – we got it.

iW: Wasn’t it considered an instant classic?

Al: It’s funny that you say that because when we finished making the film, we brought the film with a projector to Grey Gardens, and afterwards Edie paused for a moment and then turned towards me, and in a very loud voice she shouted, “The Maysles have created a classic!” So that’s one up on you, right? She already said that.

iW: Are you exploiting your subject?Al: Well, there are two things that you ought to avoid… exploiting and being so protective that you’re overdoing the project and don’t allow the person to really come through. So you have to be very discreet.

iW: I think there’s a lot of exploiting going on now where filmmakers create situations that are false.

Al: When my daughter was four years old, we went to pick up the New York Times the night before it hit the stands, as we often did. So one day we went there and the paper hadn’t arrived yet. I’m kind of fidgeting… so she turned to me, four years old, and said, “Daddy, the paper’s not ready because the people haven’t been killed yet.”

Another interview with Albert Maysles in Moviemaker

About the DVD

Eureka/Masters of Cinema vs. Criterion

Eureka – Master of Cinema – NTSC – May 07′: Unlike Salesman there are some differences in the image appearance between the Criterion and the Masters of Cinema releases. The UK edition is stated as ‘New restored transfer licenced from Maysles Films’. I suspect that the ‘restored’ part (of which no mention is made on the corresponding Criterion) refers to some delicate digital enhancement done my MoC, which is definitely brighter and colors look that much richer (but not unduly altered). Framing appears the same but the MoC does not show the infrequent ‘combing’ (see last capture – tall grass) that the Criterion does. Overall the MoC image is slightly superior in my opinion.All three editions offer the audio in original mono and there were no fatally noticeable dropouts or hiss. All editions offer English subtitles as well but as with Salesman – Moc have redone them for the UK, Anglicising words — like “humor” > “humour”, “tire” > “tyre”, “recognize” > “recognise”.

The bulk of the differences are represented in the supplements. The Criterions (both) are duplicated – offering the commentary, recorded interview with Little Edie Beale and video interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett on the influence of Grey Gardens. MoC counterpunch with almost an hour’s worth of updated material, 3 featurettes, – the interview with Maysles, the unusual ‘cab ride’ and the interesting re-visitation of the Grey Gardens property. MoC have also put together a fabulous booklet with an extensive essay, drawings, and photos (color and vintage). Very professionally bound together – quite a keepsake.

I like the Masters of Cinema edition best I think, although with the Criterion package you do get the 1.5 hour The Beales of Grey Garden (although that can be bought separately). Bottom line is that all three are respectful collections with enough love and appreciation involved that it would be silly to choose one over the other. We suggest buying whichever is easiest for you to purchase – timeless and unforgettable cinema at your fingertips.

Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver

Jeff Ulmer, Digitally Obsessed

About Albert and David Maysles

IMDb Wiki

Maysles Films website


You’ve talked before about why you don’t consider what you do “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking and the difference between that and “Direct Cinema.” Still in all your films, you mostly just follow the events, right? Are you able to really plan anything?
Well as you’re shooting, you have a very good idea of what’s the good stuff we’re shooting. But there’s no planning. When you get into it, you have some hunches. You have to have some hunches as to what kinds of things may develop. But then somehow, as you film, you drop those things because something much more interesting takes place.

Based on the credits for your films, you’ve always seemed to work as part of a collective. For example, you and David were always listed as producers and directors, but your editors and sometimes additional cameramen would also be given the shared director credit.
Yeah. ,Well people like [Frederick] Wiseman: he doesn’t do the photography, for example, but he doesn’t give full credit for the photography. It’s his name above all — just Fred Wiseman. That’s not fair.

But on all the Maysles Brothers films, you have three-to-four directors listed. Do you really work that much like a collective or does anyone have an overall vision?
We start off with a kind of vision, but a lot of that is in the hands of the editor, but they’re editors who see things eye-to-eye with us. So the editors wind up with something that is true to the character of the material, and actually in a way the material is kind of a guide for the editor.

Do you stay involved through the editing?
No. Well from time-to-time I’ll see a cut, but the editors are given a great deal of freedom. When I was working with my brother, my brother would supervise the editing so he was a strong link between the camera and the editing.

More interviews with Albert Maysles:

Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central, February 13 2005

Gothamist December 16, 2005

Tim O’Farrell, La Trobe University (Australia) reviews The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles (2005, Southern Illinois University Press), written by Jonathan P. Vogels, for Screening the Past

Vogels provides a work that is strong on close analysis in a literary style, demonstrating solid research particularly on earlier films which are not otherwise well documented or readily accessible. His enthusiasm for the subject is never in doubt: in the opening chapter Vogels comes across more as a cheerleader than an inquisitive, detached critic of the Maysles’ work. In the opening chapter he previews his response to the controversy and charges of exploitation that at times surrounded the Maysles’ treatment of their subjects in films such as Salesman (US 1967) and Grey gardens (US 1976) by saying “their films ennoble rather than degrade their subjects” (15). He effectively pre-empts many of the Maysles’ critics in a similar vein, stating that:

Albert and David Maysles typically had to defend their films against confused audiences, reproachful film critics, disdainful film theorists, and even other filmmakers who did not appreciate or understand the brothers’ aesthetic. (13)

The topic of authenticity, a perennial theme in discussions of direct cinema filmmakers, also gets plenty of coverage throughout the rest of Vogels’ book. This is in part due to the fact that filmmakers such as the Maysles, DA Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock spent much of their early careers in the 1960s making claims for the objectivity of their work and the access that their observational, non-interventionist style of filmmaking ostensibly provided to ‘reality’. With the benefit of hindsight, these claims were obviously unsustainable. Vogels doesn’t attempt to deny this, but his statements on the topic are often fuzzily humanistic; what can one make of statements such as “seeking authenticity, [the Maysles] also confronted the inevitable breakdowns of modern communication” (73), or “For [the Maysles] authenticity was linked to the desire to expand human connectedness” (153). The idea of authenticity is taken for granted here; the threshold issue of the deeply problematic nature of identifying the authentic, particularly in relation to cinema, whether fiction or non-fiction, is never directly acknowledged.

Vogels acknowledges articles by David Davidson and Kenneth Robson which refer to the modernist effect of Grey gardens. In his subsequent analysis, Vogels never quite comes to grips with how the nominally hands-off approach of the Maysles squares with his claims for their modernism, beyond occasional references to reflexivity, “the limits of language” and their faith in science and knowledge. While many may agree with his claims that the Maysles stretched the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking in Salesman, or, more problematically, Grey gardens, his comparison of the latter film with “vintage Faulkner” due to its “circular plot, time imagery and repetitive language” (18), or a cubist painting due to its “fragmented, frequently repetitive narrative” (126) seem strained and unlikely.

The films of the Maysles brothers are ripe for re-appraisal, but on different terms to the tired old debates about authenticity, reality and intervention. Particularly in the early 1960s, they were pioneering works in a technical sense, as Maysles moved out of the studio, taking advantage of technological changes such as mobile equipment and synch sound. However, these are also works that change over time.

Comparisons of the 2005-2006 Broadway production to the film

NPR site with many photos and musical excerpts

“Grey Gardens,” for all its flaws, did manage to steal my heart — but I have one serious gripe.

By taking the Maysles brothers and their film out of the story — they simply aren’t there onstage — the musical’s collaborators deprive Big and Little Edie of their own true, real-life redemption. They were lunatics, but they were also trained songbirds — above all, they dreamed of being entertainers in an appreciative world. Big Edie constantly waxes nostalgic over the old records she’d recorded back in the golden days; Little Edie is both envious and breathlessly proud of her mother’s accomplishment. The Edies loved and craved attention, and (redemption works in mysterious ways) the Maysles finally gave it to them.

A big part of what made the documentary so lovable is that Little Edie, for all of her insanity, was finally getting her close-up from Mr. De Mille. It was, in a fucked-up way, deeply life affirming.

Cintra Wilson, Salon.com

GreygardensbChristine Ebersole’s performance as Little Edie seems ripped from the film, as does Mary Louise Wilson’s take on Big Edie. If there is any doubt, just check out this pic from the play (Photo Credit/ Joan Marcus).

For those of you afraid of musicals, don’t be silly. With songs like “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and “Jerry Likes My Corn”, there are enough true-to-the-doc references to keep even the purists laughing.

What really struck me as fascinating and unexpected was watching Little Edie speak directly to the audience, relaying classic lines in her thick Kennedy-esque accent — ones like “All is need is this Libra man!” The idea that a documentary which at the time was groundbreaking for it’s fly-on-the wall approach has been so influential that its shooting style became a significant aspect of the play was pretty surreal.

Jonny Leahan, All These Wonderful Things

Author: alsolikelife

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