by Alexandra Marie Daniels
- USA -
Little Edie and Big Edie are back on the big screen. A new 2K digital restoration of the 1976 documentary film opened March 6, 2015. Screenings continue throughout the summer in select theatres around the country. Dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps and jitters manually removed from the original film allow the filth and fantasy of the Beales decaying mansion to shine in all it’s disturbing glory. Watching Grey Gardens today, with Internet information readily available, is a completely different experience from my first viewings on VHS cassette.
Though Grey Gardens attracts a cult following, which I do not consider myself a part of, in my early twenties I had a strange fascination with the film. I was living in New York City and my work introduced me to quite a few of the city’s “staunch characters.” I do not remember for certain how the film first came into my hands, but I imagine it was through a friend whose roommate was a documentary filmmaker. For documentary filmmakers, Grey Gardens is a staple of their educational toolbox. A 2014 poll in Sight and Sound magazine lists Grey Gardens as number nine of the top documentaries of all time.
The original Grey Gardens was not a film I watched once. My friend and I watched it over and over, attempting to puzzle together the pieces about this mother and daughter - the aunt of and cousin of Jacqueline Onassis - living in squalor at their decaying mansion in East Hampton. It was a world where mental illness was labeled eccentricity; and we were in complete awe, and at the same time total discomfort, with the characters and lifestyle. After each viewing, lingering questions were left to be wondered into a sleepy night.
Today, with accessibility of the Internet, I watch the newly restored Grey Gardens in a different light. With a click of a button, I discover answers for every question I desire. What happened to Little Edie after her mother died? What happened to the house? And what happened with the Maysles brothers? I acknowledge how easily we take our accessibility to information for granted.
Years ago, the first thing I wanted to know was what happened to Little Edie Beale. Although I had not forgotten the film over the years, it was not a story I followed. Both the 2006 Broadway musical of Grey Gardens and the 2009 HBO version starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore prompted phone calls to my friend, “have you seen what they did with Grey Gardens?” The new theatrical versions were well received and enjoyable to watch, but neither held the same intriguing discomfort as the documentary.
I learned that Big Edie died in 1977, not too long after the original film. Little Edie inherited Grey Gardens and one year later, at 60, finally had her opportunity to perform in front of a live audience. An 8-show run at Reno Sweeny, a Greenwich Village Cabaret, produced sold out audiences of adoring fans who were there more to see Little Edie and hear her stories than for the quality of the performance. On Janus Films website (the company releasing the new Grey Gardens) I learn from an interview with co-director and editor Muffie Meyer that the Manhattan gigs were not well reviewed but enjoyable. “They had a pianist, and she sang songs and told stories of her life to sold out, adoring crowds – largely gay, but not entirely – and she was a huge hit. And it wasn’t obviously, her singing per se. She told stories and connected with the audience. She was a true performer.” I realize now that this is the way Little Edie connects with The Maysles brothers during the film that so captivates me as a viewer.
On March 5, 2015, just before the restored Grey Gardens was scheduled to open, Albert Maysles passed away at the age of 88. His brother had died much earlier in 1987 at age 55. American documentary film is what it is today thanks to these men. Borrowing from France’s cinema verité they led the 1960’s American Direct Cinema movement. Rather than interviewing their subjects, they immersed themselves in their lives filming from a “fly on the wall” perspective. One thing that is obvious from watching Grey Gardens is that a friendship develops between filmmakers and subject. The Maysles share directing credits with their editors, giving them a voice to shape the narrative. They broke traditional ground at the time by recording sound separately from the camera by using a Nagra recorder. This was considered a technological breakthrough.
Ellen Hovde, co-director and editor, says, “The reason that [the film] works, I think, is that as theatrical as these two women are, they’re being absolutely true. They’re giving you the real picture of who they are and what they feel in a way that most people are unable to do, and that allows you to put yourself into the story.” The film is so successful in this way that I woke up the morning after my first viewing feeling like I had just met the strangest people, not that I had viewed a film.
After Edie’s performance run ended, she returned to Grey Gardens. She moved out of the bedroom she and her mother shared into a smaller room with just a mattress on the floor and a birdcage with a light bulb overhead. Little Edie stayed at Grey Gardens for a few more years (and a few less cats) until financial circumstances forced her to sell.
As fascinated as I was with Edie, I obsessed over the house. I wanted to know what happened to the dilapidated but once beautiful home. After a little poking around I found that Little Edie sold the home to former executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee and his wife, writer Sally Quinn in 1979.
Little Edie had multiple offers but refused to sell to anyone who would tear it down. Despite the state and stench of the house, Sally Quinn walked in and said to Little Edie “This is the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.” Little Edie replied, “It’s yours … I know that this house belongs to you. You’re the person who should have this house … All it needs is a coat of paint!”
Viewing the photographs in Architectural Digest, I realize that Sally Quinn fulfilled Little Edie’s desire. The home retains many Beales treasures and is faithful to the original in the restoration so much so that when it rains the house still smells like cat urine.
Grey Gardens is love story – a love story between mother and daughter, the Beales and their home, the filmmakers and their subject. As you watch the film, let yourself be entertained by these odd, eccentric ladies of another era.
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. Born in California, at age 17 she moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She choreographed and taught with Jacques D'Amboise's National Dance Institute and in 2000 returned to Sarah Lawrence to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. In 2007, Ms. Daniels attended the Los Angeles Film School and made three films with the director Bernard Rose; The Kreutzer Sonata (2008), Mr. Nice (2010), and Two Jacks (2012). Alexandra has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden, The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010, and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013. She currently teaches dance at Monterey Peninsula College.