Were Big and Little Edie Beale, the subject of the cult favorite 1976 documentary “Grey Gardens,” the first “celebreality” stars? All the elements seem to be in place for a series on E! — a pair of bonafide eccentrics unabashed about revealing themselves for the camera, who have an adjunct connection to a star (in this case, the cousins of Jackie Onassis).
But dig into the new Blu-ray Criterion Collection edition of Albert and David Maysles’ film and you’ll find it goes far beyond “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Ninety minutes with the Beales in their decaying East Hampton mansion is an experience that’s hilarious, awful, touching and a little scary. If the camera exploits their plight, the Beales are fully aware of it and participants in the exploitation.
The movie opens with a flurry of headlines — the decrepit Grey Gardens mansion is about to be condemned and the Beales evicted, so family members (including Jackie O) fix the house back up. The Beales move in, but start allowing the place to slowly fall apart again (one way to tell the passage of time in “Grey Gardens” is watching how a raccoon slowly destroys one wall).
The Beales are much less interested in home upkeep and much more about talking, mother and daughter circling around and around the events of the distant past, quarrelling and laughing and singing and crying. The mother, Big Edie, sits in her single bed, the sheets covered by old photo albums, papers and other detritus of the past. Daughter Little Edie stalks around in a variety of bizarre homemade “costumes,” a scarf ever-present on her head, carrying on a rambling monologue in the plummy tones of high society. Cate Blanchett’s performance in “Blue Jasmine” must owe a little to Little Edie, that sound of privilege adrift.
“Everything good — that’s what you didn’t do,” Big Edie says acidly and memorably in response to one of Little Edie’s tirades about how her mother held her back and didn’t let her fall in love, pursue her dancing career, or otherwise live the life she wanted. A big part of “Grey Gardens” is about regret, how it can consume us and how we can vanquish it. The Beales may be pariahs in polite society, but they’ve certainly created their own iconoclastic existence within the walls of Grey Gardens, almost a dark mirror of the other mansions in the Hamptons, where family secrets are kept well hidden.
It’s no wonder the film was such a cult hit — every time you go back to it, you pick up more dialogue, understand better the whirlwind of emotions and memories in that house. It’s clear, from the film and from the interviews with Albert Maysles included on the DVD, that the filmmakers loved these women, and the four of them develop a strange chemistry that’s rare for documentary film.
Criterion first released “Grey Gardens” on DVD in 2001 — this new Blu-ray version includes a new 2K restoration, but also another full-length documentary, “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” made up footage the Maysles didn’t use in the original film. Which is good, because after seeing the original “Grey Gardens,” you’re going to want to spend some more time visiting the ladies.