Every once in a while, a documentary manages to find incredibly fascinating subjects in what would seem to be the unlikeliest of places – that is, the nature of the subjects' narrative seems to defy the very essence of how the rest of the world would likely have perceived them. In that case, the 1976 story of Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beal, as they are depicted in the documentary 'Grey Gardens' certainly fit the bill as incredibly fascinating.
But the documentary itself is a beguiling piece of work, as any interest in a mother-daughter pair who'd left behind the glamour and recognition of high society to live a withdrawn life in a decrepit 28-room East Hampton mansion would likely only be of interest to a larger audience given their association to the Kennedy family. As cousins to Jackie Onassis, the Beale women were ostensibly an extension of the American Camelot, and the allure of taking a peek inside their strange, counterculture-esque lives and essentially deplorable living conditions was almost certainly related to America's continued interest in the family the nation had elevated to a place of celebrity – if not royalty.
The documentary by Albert and David Maysles, which was co-directed and edited by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, takes an objective stance in simply depicting the often-cacophonous daily routine of Big and Little Edie, as they talk to the camera, offering pearls of wisdom, anecdotes, and the occasional song – usually all at the same time. Part of the appeal of 'Grey Gardens' is how authentic the two women are presented as being; there's no introduction, no mechanical voiceover, just Big and Little Edie speaking directly to the camera in their unusual, but unusually captivating cadence. And because the presence of the filmmakers is felt, but never in an influential or distracting way – save for a few occasions when they appear in a mirror holding a camera – the film takes less of a fly-on-the-wall approach and feels more like the extension of a familiar, comfortable relationship that, for the audience, makes the time spent with the Beales far more intimate, but never judgmental. 'Grey Gardens' certainly shows plenty of the dilapidated nature of the Beales' home, but it never seeks to criticize or disparage them in any way – this isn't 'Hoarders'; its not addressing a problem with the intent of correcting it. Rather, the film is simply offering a unique and occasionally disquieting glimpse into the lives of two women with big personalities, who, due to the strangely isolated nature of their lives, have all but been consumed by their eccentricities.
Not long after the film begins, there is a discombobulating shot of the inside of the house that's not far removed from the inexpensive and inexplicably popular found-footage horror films from today. The camera peeks around, while a strange voice emanates from somewhere in the house's cavernous expanse. Soon, that voice is revealed to be Big Edie, on the upstairs floor, drawing the attention of the filmmakers to the family of raccoons that have taken up residence in the house, thanks to one of what is assumed to be several gaping holes in the walls and roof. Later, Little Edie, deeply involved in telling a story to the camera will nonchalantly empty a loaf of Wonder Bread and an entire box of dry cat food in the middle of the attic floor, so that the same raccoon family can have something to eat.
The raccoons aren't the only critters in the house, however, the Beales are surrounded at all times by an undisclosed number of cats, who seem to take on a kind of supporting role in the film's loose narrative. The felines are always around; one or more is typically cuddled up with Big Edie on her bed in the room she shares with her daughter. At one point, Big Edie breaks conversation with her daughter to calmly point out one of the cats is defecating behind a framed portrait of her that's leaning against the wall; the camera zooms in and lingers on the animal's face for just long enough that the gravity of the situation suddenly supercedes the ambiguous feelings the audience might have for the film's unconventional subjects.
Big Edie, a former singer, who was nearing eighty at the time of the shoot, spends most of her days sitting or lying down on her bed, picking at stray bits of newspaper, or fiddling with a hat that has suddenly been placed on her head. As Little Edie, who is never seen without a headscarf, busily flits about the room, wistfully recalling the men in her life that her mother disapproved of – and summarily kicked out of their house – Big Edie suddenly uses her " trained" but neglected voice to regale the filmmakers and her daughter with a song or two. There's a symbiosis between the two women that, despite their endless bickering and attempts to get under one another's skin with the kinds of true comments only family can get away with, makes it clear how, like their eccentricities, Big and Little Edie have come to know one another in a way that borders on being two halves of the same person. It's not the kind of relationship where one person finishes the sentences of the other, but rather, the kind of relationship where two strings of dialogue can be going at exactly the same time, and when all the audience hears is a discordant mess of words, the Beale women hear a conversation.
Remarkably though, there's never a thread of sadness in the semi-isolation of these surprisingly independent women, despite what is sometimes brought out in the images of newspaper clippings we see on screen. Yes, there is something forlorn in Little Edie's words, as she frequently confesses a desire to leave "the country," and move back to the city. But the real confession is that even though she sounds desperate to move on, and to move back to the New York she so fondly remembers, she knows as long as Big Edie is still around, she never will. And with that 'Grey Gardens' offers a compelling portrait of two women who are anything but ordinary, but who are likeable and fascinating beyond even their idiosyncrasies.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Grey Gardens' comes from Criterion with as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard clear Criterion case. The spine is numbered 123, and disc includes a four-page foldout insert with an essay written by critic Hilton Als.
Presented in its original 1.33.1 aspect ratio, 'Grey Gardens' has been given a 2K digital restoration, and for anyone who has seen a copy of this cult classic on VHS or even DVD, the result is rather impressive. The new transfer is presented in 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec and manages to look brighter, more colorful, and more detailed, while still preserving the unique 16mm qualities that likely attracted so many in the first place.
The film maintains a consistently grainy look that actually accentuates the unique tableau on display, without being garish about it. Still, despite the grain – which is merely present, not necessarily heavy – there is plenty of fine detail to be seen, which is usually thanks to Little Edie's penchant for engaging with the camera by walking right up and speaking directly into the lens. Textures and facial features dim somewhat as the shots get wider, but there is still plenty to see, and the restoration has brought out a great deal of additional details that likely weren't present in other releases. But the enhanced brightness and color is what stands out most in this Blu-ray edition. Colors on fabrics – especially Little Edie's headscarves – are bright and vivid without ever appearing oversaturated or as though the hue is bleeding into the image. Contrast levels are also high, which helps to retain most of the detail when the scenes are being shot in low light – such as when the raccoons are being fed.
Overall, this transfer offers the best looking image this film has likely seen since its release, and it manages to utilize the film's format and age to its advantage, rather than treat it like a problem that needs to be solved.
'Grey Gardens' is presented in its original monaural track that was restored from a 16-bit transfer from the original tracks. While the sound is generally fairly basic, consisting primarily of dialogue from or between the film's subjects, the restoration of the mix is what is truly remarkable here.
First and foremost, the sound does a tremendous job of presenting the dialogue in a clean and distinct fashion. There may be times when Bid Edie is a little difficult to hear, but that has more to do with the manner in which she was recorded, and her style of speaking than anything to do with the audio transfer on this disc. Generally speaking, there's little else present on the mix, aside from the odd cat noise, or shuffling of paper. Music being played in the scene typically sounds good, but wasn't recorded with the intention of delivering a powerful musical experience during playback.
Most notable, however, is the lack of cracks, hisses, and dropouts that have accompanied releases of the film in the past, or are typically found on such smaller films that are this old. Overall, the restoration is superb, and manages to deliver a terrific sounding audio mix that is subtle and unobtrusive, and allows the subjects to do the talking.
'Grey Gardens' contains two short interviews with fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett in which they discuss their first experiences viewing the film, and how Little Edie became an unlikely fashion icon, whose influence continues today.
It’s a good bet that many readers will have come across 'Grey Gardens' at some point in the past, but whether you're a longtime fan, or a complete newbie, this one is definitely worth checking out. There's the sense that this is the type of documentary that simply wouldn't be made anymore, as it just allows its subjects to be themselves, without attaching any sort of judgment, or call to action to the narrative. Instead, the film just plays out like the audience is visiting old friends for a short while, knowing the story has been going on like that for sometime, and will continue to do so long after the cameras stop rolling. With its terrific picture and restored sound, along with some entertaining special features, this one comes highly recommended.