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The Criterion Collection presents
Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens (1976/2006)

"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, do you know what I mean?"
- Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale

Review By: Jeff Ulmer  
Published: December 04, 2006

Stars: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith Bouvier Beale Jr.
Other Stars: Jack Helmuth, Brooks Hyres, Jerry Torre, Lois Wright
Director: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:34m:57s / 01h:31m:12s
Release Date: December 05, 2006
UPC: 715515017923
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A+AB+ A-

DVD Review

"Two roads diverged in yellow woods, and pondering one, I took the other, and that made all the difference." - Little Edie, misquoting poet Robert Frost

A beautiful young debutante, Edith Beale Jr. had been born into the life of the blue-blooded—first cousin of Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—and her life was to be one of the idle rich. She went to the best boarding schools, had all the right connections; she could have married any number of wealthy aristocrats. It can not be understated that it was a monumental commitment, when in 1952 she made a decision that would change her life forever: to return to her childhood home to care for her mother after her parents divorced. She would not leave again until after her mother passed away—some 27 years later.

Their home, the titular Grey Gardens, is a 28-room mansion located in the affluent seaside community of East Hampton, on New York's Long Island. Here, Edith "Big Edie" Beale and her daughter, Edith Jr. ("Little Edie"), would come to national attention when a series of raids made by inspectors from the Hampton Board of Health resulted in the house being condemned. After decades of neglect, rodents infestations, and virtually overrun by cats and other mammals living inside its walls, the Beales faced eviction on the grounds that their estate had deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe and unsanitary to live in. The public was shocked and appalled at the conditions in which these relatives of the former First Lady were living.

"The relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character." - Little Edie

In their original 1976 feature, documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Salesman) captured the distinctive world of the Beales. As much by their presence as by their invisibility, the Maysles provide the canvas on which these two women paint the picture of their lives.

The brothers had first met the Beales when they were commissioned to assemble a home movie for Jackie O's sister, Lee Bouvier Radziwell, to be shot in and around the Hamptons, where she and her family had spent her childhood summers. As part of this expedition, they were to visit her reclusive aunt and cousin. The Maysles recognized that another kind of film could be made here, but when Radziwell saw the footage they returned with, the negatives were confiscated, and the filmmakers were asked never to film the family again. David remained in touch with the Beales though, and a year later they returned to Grey Gardens to produce this documentary. The Maysles were welcomed into their world as family, and spent six weeks shooting on location. Through this series of conversations with the women together and individually, a remarkable portrait unfolds before the camera. To avoid as much outside interference as possible, filming was done with only the brothers present, with the exception of the few guests the Beales entertained during the process. The result is an intimate exposition, which both Big and Little Edie feel accurately present a vision in their lives.

Critics, on the other hand, were quick to condemn the Maysles, accusing them of exploiting a pair of certifiably wacky spinsters for their own celebrity, while playing on the misfortunes of relatives of the First Family. To the contrary, both women can easily be seen enjoying the process—they want this story told, and were the first to screen it on its completion. While it would be accurate to say that these women are, at the very least, eccentric, there is little evidence that they are anything but happy with both the opportunity to make the film and its outcome.

"The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility." - Little Edie

This may not be an easy watch for many people, but I found it hard not to fall in love with these women; their natural banter is the stuff writers can only dream of. Whether it's the elder Edith singing along to her old records or Little Edie addressing the camera in her distinctive headwear and "best costume for the day," the pair mesmerize with relentless verbosity. Two scenes provide a perfect summation for the contents of this film: the first, a shot of a cruise ship lost in the hazy horizon is a metaphor for Little Edie, who expresses her regret for all the things she never got to do, blaming her mother for many of them. The other is a scene in which Edie misquotes Robert Frost, providing a clear picture of her choices in life—she was not coerced into this situation, she chose it freely as part of her responsibility to her class and family. While the two bicker constantly, they also enjoy each others' company, revelling in song and dance and various other antics on a daily basis. The line between fact and fiction blurs in many of their recollections, but it is plain both rely on each other implicitly. This is the study of a relationship, of devotion, in all its sadness, vulgarity, and beauty.

As one becomes accustomed to the very colorful characters these two women represent, it becomes easier to accept their decidedly reclusive lifestyle. It is very difficult, however, to witness the conditions in which they live as a cat relieves itself in the bedroom, or the camera joins the younger Edie as she religiously feeds the racoons in the attic even as they dismantle portions of the house at will. One can only imagine what other "niceties" these women subject themselves to on a daily basis, be it fleas or other unthinkable and unsavory creatures lurking in their midst. However, despite their surroundings, their demeanor is unwaveringly jovial, their spirits high, and their outlook and reflections a breath of much needed fresh air. They revel in their nonconformity, and the Maysles have created a lasting document. As Big Edie is reported to have said on her deathbed: "What more is there to say? It's all in the film."

Well...

In the thirty years since its release in 1976, Grey Gardens and the story of the Beales has quietly become a cult phenomenon, spawning books, tributes, shows both on and off Broadway, and now a feature film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. In 2006, Albert Maysles went back to the vaults and assembled a new feature-length film using outtakes from the the original shoot: The Beales of Grey Gardens.

"I'll never have a man look at me again like this." - Edie

For the most part, this feature can be seen as an extension of the original, but where Grey Gardens took a more observational approach, this new edit brings the filmmakers into the conversations, either leading through their questions or as the subject of Little Edie's frequent flirtations. Even more than in the first documentary, the viewer gets the sense of just how important the two brothers, and the opportunity to expose the truth about themselves, are to the Beales.

"We'll all be arrested yet."

Despite being constructed from outtakes, The Beales of Grey Gardens is coherent unto itself, and could easily act as a stand-in for Grey Gardens rather than a sequel, vividly portraying these iconic characters and their bizarre environment and lifestyle. Even amid the appalling conditions of their residence, there is a sense of grace and dignity in these women, which one can't help but admire.

According to Albert Maysles' video introduction, Little Edie's only real criticism of the first film was that there wasn't enough singing and dancing, which is righted with a vengeance here from the opening frames and Edie's rendition of You Ought to Be in Pictures, with more "performances" are included throughout. The parade of costumes continues, including a segment in the latter half of the picture consisting entirely of a montage of wardrobe displays.

Much of the film takes place with the Beales socializing in the one bedroom they mainly occupy or with Edie talking into the camera on subjects ranging from religion to politics to love and astrology. There is a bit of drama when the house catches fire, which apparently is a common occurence judging by Edie's comments afterwards. The Maysles also follow Little Edie on a trip down to the beach. Whether intentional or not, Albert pays tribute to his brother, who passed away in 1987, with the final shot of the film. For fans of the original, The Beales of Grey Gardens is a welcome return.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Criterion's transfers present the films in their 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and this rerelease utilizes dual layers for the presentation. Since all footage is from the same shoot, the appearance of both features is practically identical. The stock used is inherently grainy, and this is represented here flawlessly, without any additional "digitalness" exhibited. Colors are vibrant where applicable, depending upon the lighting conditions where the scenes were shot. The image is also naturally soft, and this looks like a faithful reproduction of the source material.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: All audio is recorded on location and completely unscripted, so there are times when it is difficult to fully discern what is being said. Due to the local conditions, there is also some level of hiss and background noise present. This is only really noticible during the opening credits, after which the onscreen action absorbs any attention that technical issues may take away from the presentation. The audio tracks are available as both 1.0 and 2.0 mono.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Albert Maysles, editor/directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, associate producer Susan Fromke
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Little Edie interview
  2. Interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett
  3. Photo galleries
Extras Review: Once again Criterion provides appropriate accoutrements. The Grey Gardens disc contains the same extras as the film's 2001 DVD release, with slight reworkings in the menus. The commentary track by director Albert Maysles, editor/directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, and producer Susan Fromke has been newly recorded for this release. Here, the filmmakers discuss the collaborative effort that culled an hour and a half from over 70 hours of footage, and how the Maysles were able to capture the essence of these women in such a way that even the subjects felt truly represented. They also offer insights into the Beales and the events leading up to the film's conception. The commentary is presented in typical Criterion fashion, edited from two separate recording sessions, leaving no gaps in the dialogue and focusing on delivering interesting comments on the scenes and subjects.

There is also an extensive audio interview with Little Edie that was published in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine in 1976, conducted by Kathryn G. Graham with Albert Maysles in attendance; another fascinating look into the life and mind of this extraordinary and outspoken woman, and a perfect supplement to the film.

A pair of video interviews (each 5m:23s ) with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett focus on Little Edie's impact on their designs. From her headwear to her color combinations, both men credit Edie with a unique fashion sense that is reflected in their work.

An extensive photo gallery, The Family Scrapbook, contains 43 screens of vintage photos and newspaper clippings from the Beales' past, focusing on Little Edie and the period surrounding her official debut into society, as well as her modelling career. The Behind-The-Scenes section contains 97 photos shot during the filming of Grey Gardens. Finally, there is Cats, with 18 screens (including one with the resident racoon) of the cats lounging on and about the house.

The film's theatrical trailer and a TV trailer are also present. Be sure to let the film play through the credits and color bars for an additional "extra."

The Beales of Grey Gardens contains a newly filmed forward (8m:31s) by Albert Maysles, who observes the effect the original film had, and relays his reasons for returning to the material in this new film.

I would also comment on Criterion's attention to detail in both the menu design and packaging, including duplicating the real family album graphics for the photo gallery, and the insert foldout (slightly revised from the first printing and containing an essay by critic Hilton Als), fashioned after an astrology book Little Edie is seen reading in both films, where she describes her ideal husband. A new essay by Village Voice author Michael Musto is included in the overleaf for The Beales of Grey Gardens, which also has a collection of stills from the film.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

In these days of the mega "special edition" where a release's worth is based soley on the number of extras presented, Criterion once again demonstrates that true value lies in the quality of the content, not just the quantity, yet the addition of The Beales of Grey Gardens adds immesurably to the package. Grey Gardens provides a perfect blend, and by the time one has digested its contents, an appreciation of its subjects as well as the people who made it is firmly established. This package provides a remarkable look at two interesting and intriguing personalities whose choices would baffle most anyone; yet despite criticism to the contrary, their contentment is, using Edie's vocabulary, staunchly defined within the walls of Grey Gardens.

 


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