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Documentaries > Grey Gardens

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message 1: by Steve (last edited Jan 26, 2009 09:24AM) (new)

Steve | 957 comments Just watched the Criterion disc of the Maysles brothers' terrific documentary. Read description here: http://www.criterion.com/films/664

It's a really great doc because it effortlessly delves into the psyches of the most eccentric mother-daughter pairs imaginable.

Really beautifully shot, too -- the images of the ocean view from the house's porch (and then the images of the unkempt house from beach) present a fascinating juxtaposition between the outside world and Little and Big Edie's seclusion. And the unspoken juxtaposition between these lives and those of the Kennedy/Jackie O lifestyle makes it all the more interesting.

Strongly recommended. I've seen the Maysles' Gimme Shelter -- also an all-time classic -- and I'm Netflixing their Salesman doc, which is on Criterion DVD too.


message 2: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5313 comments Excellent movie. Really frightening movie, too. Not everybody's cup of tea, I know some people who just can't listen to all the bickering.


message 3: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments yes!!! - i love this movie - thanks for mentioning it here - what a wonderfully quirky family.

haven't seen gimme shelter in years...
i didn't realize they made salesman.


message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve | 957 comments Gimme Shelter is also on a great Criterion disc. Worth buying or stealing.


message 5: by Tom (last edited Jan 26, 2009 11:15AM) (new)

Tom | 5313 comments Philip, that's really interesting. You're not the only person I know who finds the Beales to be "wonderfully quirky" or some such. Folks describe the movie as being so deeply moving, and all that. I remember when a musical play was created based on the material, the actress in the lead referred to it as being about the transformative power of love, and a local writer said that he'd missed that show, he'd seen the one about the woman who destroys her daughter's only chances for independence and happiness and holds her fiscally and emotionally prisoner for the rest of her life.

I have to say that I've never been able to find the Beales as anything other than batshit crazy, and the movie to be anything but a real nightmare of fights and recriminations. It's like two characters from SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, the monstrous Mrs. Violet Venable and her niece Catherine, imprisoned together forever: NO EXIT written by Tennessee Williams.

Don't get me wrong, I mean that as a compliment. GREY GARDENS is a great bloody movie.


message 6: by Phillip (last edited Jan 26, 2009 02:42PM) (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments well, without going into too much detail, i saw a lot of my own relationship with my mom in that film (scary as that may sound). so the "heaviness" of it didn't inflict a lot of tension or trauma for me. i suppose quirky may have been an understatement...batshit crazy...yeah, that about sums it up. (along with NO EXIT, by tennessee williams)...

welcome to my family....i suppose it well prepared me for being able to put up with just about anything.


message 7: by Heidi (new)

Heidi I believe Grey Gardens stars Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange... should be interesting... will have to check out the documentary... loved the Broadway musical and the overlapping of characters (daughter playing Mother as young woman, etc.).




message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve | 957 comments Kate -- there's a little bit of info on Wikipedia about Little Edie's life outside of Grey Gardens. Might be a good place to start. Sounds like she was kind of...I don't want to say "pathetic" but just kind of lost, I guess.


message 9: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5313 comments There's even a follow up, consisting of unused footage from GREY GARDENS. Entitled THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS it isn't really essential viewing, but has some interesting/amusing bits in it.


message 10: by Jill (last edited Jan 27, 2009 03:38PM) (new)

Jill (wanderingrogue) | 123 comments I loved Grey Gardens. I found Big and Little Edie absolutely fascinating. My best friend is endlessly fascinated with how they talked. He loves that about them. To me they seemed almost like living ghosts, reliving their past glories and ignoring the present. They're almost a real life Shirley Jackson story. It's sad when you think of their disconnect from the real world, but as entities completely encapsulated in their own little world, there's this underlying tranquility and comfort that seems to make sense only to them.

Really one of my favorite documentaries ever.


message 11: by Jean (new)

Jean Liota (gardenlady56) | 30 comments I loved Grey Gardens, too. But I'm skeptical of the Broadway musical that was made of it. I didn't find the documentary to be funny or campy. Just sad, really.


message 12: by Tom (last edited Apr 20, 2009 08:26AM) (new)

Tom | 5313 comments The original film by Albert and David Maysles is a direct cinema film about a mother and daughter who live in squalor in the titular collapsing mansion in East Hampton. The women are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (they are referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively). The film is an unscripted snapshot of their lives, as the two women worry over their cats, fight, worry over the city of East Hampton taking legal action to get them out of their cat and raccoon infested crumbling house, and fight. Little Edie is always complaining about the sorry mess her life has become. She wants more than anything (she says) to get away from Grey Gardens and have her own life. There are some epic battles, most of which have clearly been fought and fought and fought again any number of times over the years. The film is not to everybody's taste. One good friend says that he thinks the film exploits mental illness, and I've known others who just can't stand all the bitching. The film is a thrilling and ambiguous and disturbing experience. I've referred to it as being NO EXIT by Tennessee Williams.

I watched the HBO film based on the Beales, and thought it was better than I was expecting. It does give you a pretty good idea of what went down to make the ladies what they eventually turned into. I much prefer the HBO film to the Broadway musical, which begged for sympathy for the Beales that I was simply never able to feel. The musical and the HBO film both struggle to answer the question that the Maysles film never brings up: what the hell is wrong with these two women? I think the HBO film manages to come up with better answers to the question, and it even seems to come up with a direct rebuke to the musical when it flatly denies that Little Edie ever had a chance with Joe Kennedy, Jr.

The HBO film cuts back and forth between 1970s Grey Gardens, where the Maysles Brothers are making their film with the Beales, and the Beales' lives in the 1930s 40s and 50s. Equal time is given to mother and daughter, and the train wrecks of their lives are clearly laid out. The acting is good, the production values are beyond reproach, overall a fine effort.

But. As good as the HBO film is, I could never escape the feeling that way too many bits from the movie were being shoe-horned in to the proceedings to satisfy the fans, context be damned. One of the more telling moments in the Maysles film comes when Little Edie says that "It's very difficult to keep the line between the present and past." But Little Edie drops this little bombshell, which is basically the entire film in a single sentence, in a discussion about the changes the estate has gone through over the years, while HBO's Little Edie delivers this line with full Serious Portent, looking straight into the camera and slowly leaving a room after an argument with her mother. It got to the point where I started to think that the Maysles and the Beales really deserved some kind of co-writing credit. I just can't help thinking that the Beales and Maysleses are better writers.

The HBO film seems to want to be a serious examination of the lives of these two women, and to an extent it is, certainly more so than the musical which couldn't resist the most transparent of Broadway conventions: a second-act Gospel Number.

Jessica Lange is nothing short of brilliant as Big Edie Beale. She's able to evoke some real pity for the woman while showing the total mama-monster. A fascinating and complicated performance. I wish I could say the same of Drew Barrymore as Little Edie. At 34, Barrymore is able to play the younger Edie with some skill and energy, but she's simply in over her head when it comes to playing Edie at 56. She does her best, and manages a couple of skillful impersonation moments when re-creating famous bits from the Maysles film, but ultimately it just isn't enough, layers of prosthetic makeup notwithstanding. She's just too young, plain and simple. Also, more damagingly, she simply isn't able to summon the breeding that Lange manages so effortlessly: simply put, she has no class at all, faded or otherwise. When the Maysles' Little Edie uses words like "apoplectic" she knows what she means, and she refers to someone else as being "an artist from a very good family" without irony. Barrymore just can't simulate this kind of thing: she doesn't understand Little Edie the way Lange understands Big Edie.

I'd recommend watching the Maysles film, which is available in a terrific Criterion Collection DVD with assorted interviews and commentaries that throw a good deal of light on the Beales' lives. Watch the HBO film, if you like, mainly to watch Lange's splendid work, which never descends into mere imitation as Barrymore's so often does.


message 13: by Jill (new)

Jill (wanderingrogue) | 123 comments No Exit by Tennessee Williams? I like that! I always compared it to Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but without all the poisoning and fire.

I'm curious to see Lange's performance (she's one of my favorite actresses these days), but I was very cautious to see Barrymore playing Little Edie. I just couldn't see how such an amazing personality could be acted by someone who hadn't lived that life. I guess my concerns were well founded.

Thanks for the review, Tom! :)


message 14: by Tina (new)

Tina | 38 comments Brilliant review, Tom. You've articulated my cautious pessimism about the whole endeavor. Heard the interview with Drew Barrymore on Terry Gross.
When the played a sound clip from the HBO film, I didn't have the production values and prosthetics to distract me and I could concentrate on the voice.
It was better than expected. But just a clip. Haven't seen/heard the entire thing although now, after all the bru ha ha, I want to.
You tap the essence of the ear in your astute examples that reveal the absence of irony in the real Edie and the real story: very good families have eccentrics too. It's generational that Barrymore can't feel this reality for herself. The class in her family was removed by the time she was raised with the negatives artists and eccentrics are notorious for. Drew Barrymore could somehow struggle out of it and be thoroughly of her own generation. Edie Beale became stuck as a character of her class and finally a Warhol camp character of class Americana.

I guess I'm disappointed that someone so smart as Lange wants to re-enact the Maysles' film and not just have a play on their early life. But that would never sell I guess. Audiences have not only come to expect simulacrum; apparently, they need it. One could get practically apoplectic.





message 15: by Phillip (last edited Apr 25, 2009 05:50PM) (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments just coming back to this discussion. i glanced at tom's review right after he wrote it, but didn't have time to comment. i'm kind of fascinated by the beales, and will for sure check this one out. i used to think jessica lange was a great actress, but it's been a long time since i saw her in something interesting. from the sound of tom's review, she did a great job - that's good enough to pique my interest! and some inner teenage boy is still in love with drew barrymore, sorry to hear she didn't hit the high notes on this one. nonetheless, i'm curious...


message 16: by Jenn (new)

Jenn | 99 comments I've had this recorded since the night it aired but haven't had the time to watch it uninterrupted. All your comments have me even more interested and I will have to try and watch it tonight.


message 17: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments jenn,

are you talking about the original documentary, or the newly created feature with jessica lange and drew barrymore?


message 18: by Tina (new)

Tina | 38 comments whatever one does, i hope people see the documentary first and the bio pic after.
the maysles film is a high point of the art of documentary film making, period.
i just wish that the hbo production didn't reenact that film but concentrated on the beales' earlier years. the doc reveals their former glories through still family photos and press clippings, so it has the feel of looking at their scrapbook... which allows for more nostalgia and longing to creep in to the picture.
it would be nice if the hbo production had done the reverse and shown stills from the maysles' film. but this is partly a jessica lange production/project and i think she very much wanted the challenge of playing those characters of the documentary as characters. it brings up a lot of issues around reality, performance, insanity, acting and documentation as these things all overlap.
This is part of what lends itself to the camp of the whole story.

But the thing is, apart from a story, these are real lives. The psycho-dynamics between the two are fascinating, funny, disturbing and enlightening. But their condition is also revealing. It uncovers the nightmare that most of us scramble to avoid or at least are very fortunate to not have to deal with. But it also uncovers some nightmares about class systems and emotional, I guess I want to say support systems, that can and will flee the scene when the parties stop and the money is vanishing. So it is also a tale of the vulnerabilities of those of us with bohemian sensibilities. Even when protected within "good families" such sensibilities run afoul of the business cycle, thus never guaranteeing the trust and securities promised in our old age. So the will to remain independent and different, bohemian, still remains a fight.
More than a few of us witness the realities of aging in this country and how money, status, company, engagement, and sanity can peel away with the paint and wallpaper. We see it in our elders or the elders of others and it's damn horrifying.
The fear of being alone and poor is so talked about among so many of my (primarily) female friends and myself (who are mainly visual artists and musicians uninvolved in the larger business cycle) that Grey Gardens touches on a real corner of anxiety. When are your good old days the good old days?
Despite her grudge against her narcissistic mother for stomping on her ambitions as an actress, Edith Beale went on to live an independent life to the age of 84. She wrote poetry and had regular correspondence with tons of fans, so ultimately she got some of the creativity and celebrity she desired.
I love Little Edie Beale for her resilience, insistence on personal style, intelligence, humor and honesty, despite her insanity. Seems to me that's what keeps their story such an endearing one to so many.


message 19: by Jean (new)

Jean Liota (gardenlady56) | 30 comments
Just to clarify: The Maysles's documentary from 1975 is the original film on the subject, at least to the best of my knowledge: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076/


I don't think I'd count this HBO version as a doc. It's historical, but not a documentary. IMHO.


message 20: by Tina (new)

Tina | 38 comments RIGHT, the HBO production is a bio-pic, not a documentary. Since many people take bio-pics very seriously, or at least literally and the Maysles' film carries a certain amount of significance, the folks behind the HBO production have some obligations beyond set design and prosthetics. The challenges the actors face toward these obligations are many. It's good for people to think critically about them.


message 21: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments great post, tina. thanks for your wonderful words on the documentary, which is really something. there is a follow-up documentary, which is now part of the two-pack produced by the criterion collection. i was fondling it today in the video store, but didn't bring it home. i haven't seen the additional package/discs, but i'll be picking that up soon.


message 22: by Sam (last edited May 10, 2009 03:13AM) (new)

Sam | 548 comments after reading all your posts about the doco - I asked the DVD fairy to bring me Grey Gardens ... I've just finished watching it

loved the Maysle's doco style ... the shots are very expressive - the birthday party was wonderfully uncomfortable! ... and the editing is amazing to string together a range of different days of shooting together into a structured story ... the fight scene in the pink (?) room was the perfect ending ...

and my oh my - Mrs and Miss Beales ... so much to delve into here - fierce individuality ... pride ... constant regret ... confidence ... annoyance ... a quintessential mother daughter relationship ...

and just quietly - I was reminded of my Nana and her relationship with my uncle and mum ... I've had a little preview and I'm kinda looking forward to my own Big Edie phase (firmly ensconced in my Little Edie phase as we speak!)

i enjoyed them both equally - Little Edie for her sweet insanity (I was stunned by her physical beauty too) ... and Big Edie for her charmingly staunch character (yes I'm pinching that from Little Edie - after all where did she learn to be a staunch - S-T-A-U-N-C-H - woman?)

thank you, thank you, thank you to all you GR punters - I would never have seen this gem without you :o)


message 23: by Tina (new)

Tina | 38 comments Sam, Steve-O (who started this thing), Heidi, Kate,Tom, Phillip, Jill, Jean and Jenn :

Since this IS Good Reads, after all...
There is also a book out on the Maysles titled

A Maysles Scrapbook: Photographs / Cinemagraphs / Documents

For everyone in the Bay Area, they've got a copy over at Phoenix Books on 24th in SF.

I took a peek through it and loved the stills and information.




message 24: by Amy (new)

Amy | 58 comments I found the reality of this doc absolutely riveting - the cat shit in the bedroom, scattered all about that beautiful picture - Little Edie trying so hard with her head scarves and brooches, and she ends up inspiring fashion waves -

and yes, Gimme Shelter is fascinating - I've seen it a few times and never get tired of it - Mick Jagger looking into the camera at the end like a worn-out man who's seen the heart of darkness...


message 25: by Jean (new)

Jean Liota (gardenlady56) | 30 comments Someone just told me about this. You can rent Grey Gardens -- the actual house, not the movie -- this summer: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2009/05/...


message 26: by Tina (new)

Tina | 38 comments wow too bad we can't all rustle up $3,000 a day. can we....?


message 27: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments we have to assemble a crew and do this, tina...that would be so funny. we would have to film it and document it all of course, tell gc to assemble a crew. let's do it.


message 28: by Tina (new)

Tina | 38 comments i'll talk to gc and wire the Bradlees
positively revolutionary!

(looking forward to that Varda dvd.... hint hint tee hee)


Phillip wrote: "we have to assemble a crew and do this, tina...that would be so funny. we would have to film it and document it all of course, tell gc to assemble a crew. let's do it."




message 29: by Phillip (last edited Jun 20, 2009 01:26AM) (new)

Phillip | 10498 comments are you coming to the summer solstice event at the chapel of the chimes on sunday? i'm playing there with the clubfoot orchestra...come by if you can and i'll bring the varda. i think it's from 5 - 9 pm.

how come i haven't seen you at any of these great oshima films over at pfa? you city kids...always neglecting the east bay and its superior culture.

;)


message 30: by Luxia (new)

Luxia | 3 comments Seems like no one has commented on this thread in years. But I thought I'd leave this comment anyways. The Beales were frowned upon for their Sqaulor and reclusive ways. But now days, the Beales would have been the most watched reality show in history. They would have been bigger than Honey Boo Boo child.


message 31: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5313 comments GREY GARDENS and its follow up THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS will be coming out on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection in December.


message 32: by Steve (new)

Steve | 957 comments Tom wrote: "GREY GARDENS and its follow up THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS will be coming out on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection in December."

Good times. They just announced Nashville too, which is awesome.


message 33: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5313 comments Can't wait for NASHVILLE!

I'll hold off on GREY GARDENS, until the next sale. I mean, how much more cleaned up can that movie get, how much more detailed can the squalor be?


message 34: by JC Canale (new)

JC Canale | 14 comments Hi gang,
GARDENS is great but I highly recommend the Maysles' probably most significant work of Direct Cinema, SALESMAN. The final frame is a fine example of devastation and uncertainty. Talking about Direct cinema (or verité, you choose) I would just like to mention Allan King, criminally neglected and forgotten until his recent death, he made more than a few fine works of true impact. A few years ago Criterion released a box set of his "actuality dramas". A couple of his films are available in YT. If you have the time, please give this guy a chance :)


message 35: by Luxia (new)

Luxia | 3 comments I personally feel sorry for the Beales. But then again, I think it was their own fault as to how they ended up. Instead of reinventing themselves and getting jobs like normal people, they clung on to what they had and slowly slipped into mental illness deeper and deeper as the years went by. Waiting to be rescued or whatever. Big Edie should have swallowed her pride and sold Grey Gardens. But she and little Edie were so obsessed and lost in their own "day dreams".... with "living in the past" that she refused. Grey Gardens is a beautiful story that ended tragically.

A pitiful ending to what should should have been a Fairytale of a story.


message 36: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5313 comments Agreed about SALESMAN -- one of the most devastating American films, a shame it isn't more widely known. There's a very good Criterion DVD out there. Check it out.


message 37: by Luxia (new)

Luxia | 3 comments Tom wrote: "Agreed about SALESMAN -- one of the most devastating American films, a shame it isn't more widely known. There's a very good Criterion DVD out there. Check it out." Totally agree.


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