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The Boston Phoenix Shades of Grey

Tending again to the Maysleses' Gardens

By Peter Keough

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Richard Nixon had only recently resigned from the presidency when David and Albert Maysles started filming their 1976 documentary Grey Gardens in the eponymous East Hampton mansion of the Edith Beales, mother and daughter. Except for tabloids shamefacedly perused in supermarket checkout lines, America was not yet used to seeing the rich, famous, and powerful get publicly embarrassed in excruciating detail at every level of the media.

The resulting film, which casually exposed its subjects in all their gleeful squalor, mutual laceration, and self-delusion, prompted as much outrage as fascination. Seen some two decades later, it seems both a precursor of the tell-all trend and a critique of it, a document that's simultaneously engrossing and repelling, as chaotic and untidy as the Beales themselves, enlightening you about the illusions and realities of this kind of filmmaking at the same time it makes you want to take a shower.

Not that the Beales were big-time celebrities, though they did have presidential connections. The elder Edith, or "Big Edie," was the sister of Jacqueline Onassis's father, John "Black Jack" Bouvier -- which made her the aunt and her daughter, "Little Edie," the first cousin of the former first lady. The elder Edith, a stunning beauty in her youth and a first-rate soprano, married and separated from a New York lawyer, living in isolation in the Hamptons until joined by her daughter, who was then nominally pursuing an acting career. Little Edie remained with her mother for 20 years in a secluded, symbiotic relationship that grew to resemble the final phases of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.

The pair attracted attention in the early '70s when their 28-room estate was declared unfit for habitation because of filth, lack of maintenance, and an infestation of feral cats (information imparted economically in Grey Gardens by brief glimpses of newspaper headlines). Onassis and her cousin Lee Radziwill pitched in to clean up, so by the time the Maysles Brothers arrived on the scene with their camera crew, the place was relatively presentable. Pioneers of "direct cinema," the vérité school of nonfiction filmmaking embodied in such classics of the genre as Salersman (1969) and Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysleses espoused an ideal of recording reality undistorted by artifice or point of view, the stream-of-celluloid consciousness in all its messiness (the same effect, as Anthony Lane suggests in his New Yorker review, that Stephen Spielberg fabricates in the opening of Saving Private Ryan). They had their work cut out for them with the Beales.

Greeted by Little Edie, then 56 and sporting a costume of her own design that she describes in chirpy detail (pantyhose over pants, a skirt over both that can be removed to serve as a cape, a scarf over her thinning hair in a Liz Taylor turban -- just one of many changed with each scene of the movie), the filmmakers are immediately sucked into the Beales' symbiotic universe. The imaginary fourth wall of the screen breaks down as the ladies insinuate their guests into their world, performing (Little Edie kicks up a march from her days at Miss Porter's School, mom croons along with a recording of "Tea for Two"), confiding secrets, and engaging in mutual recriminations, the plummy Kate Hepburn patrician accents disintegrating into shrieks as they denounce each other for sabotaging the lives they never had.

Compared to the plays of Tennessee Williams, the film has more the tone of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? -- it's Great Expectations as conceived by Beckett and Ionesco. Playing Pip are the Maysleses themselves ("David, where have you been all my life?" sings Little Edie during a flag-waving turn to music from the Virginia Military Academy), and the question of who's exploiting whom becomes moot indeed. Directorial credit should go at least partly to the Beales, as the camera seldom wanders from them, drifting occasionally to spot a cat urinating behind a haunting, Sargent-esque portrait of Big Edie in her prime, or to take in a brilliant patch of the ocean. ("What a beautiful shade of blue," says Little Edie. "What is it? Sapphire?")

What jewel does Grey Gardens recover from this rough? The film is a high-camp cult classic, with aficionados quoting key lines. As a textbook case of acted-out co-dependent dysfunction, it's a prototype of Jerry Springer. Mostly, though, in its unholy collaboration of morbid media and rabid celebrity, it's prophetic of today's gardens of media delights that have rendered the borders between fact and fiction, news and titillation, and art and obscenity gray indeed.

Men with a camera

When it was first released, in 1976, Albert and David Maysles's cinéma-vérité (or, as they called it, "direct cinema") documentary Grey Gardens created a cause de scandale with its hilarious and disturbing full disclosure of the fortunes of Edith and Edie Beale, aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Onassis, who were living in dottiness and squalor in the East Hampton mansion of the title. Many critics were appalled, believing that this public intrusion into private lives had gone too far, that the filmmakers had manipulated their subjects for shock effect, had in fact exploited them.

"Back in 1976 the Times reviewer was Walter Goodman," recalls Albert Maysles (his brother and collaborator David died in 1987), "and when he reviewed the film all his vast psychological problems came forth. He asked, why did we have to look at all this sagging flesh? Apparently he had a problem with aging. And Molly Haskell in the Village Voice was offended -- the last line of her review said there are some people you shouldn't film. I found that a condescending view of human nature. With the new release, we are luckier. The current New York Times reviewer, Janet Maslin, is a more positive person. She, of course, loved it."

Perhaps Grey Gardens is now getting a more positive response because, in this era of shameless exposé journalism, the film seems almost quaint. It was, however one of the first works to showcase the turmoil and untidiness of private lives for entertainment, and to blur the line between strict, nonfictional recording of reality and the intervention of the filmmaker. So you could see it as a prototype of such present-day phenomena as tabloid talk shows, the ubiquitous airing of the president's dirty laundry, and the fast and loose treatment of fact by filmmakers Oliver Stone and Michael Moore.

"It's a disaster," Maysles says of this last trend. "It's something I'm very concerned about, this blurring that culminated in films like J.F.K. Today, even some documentary filmmakers brag about being 'the line between fact and fiction.' The result is a disruption of any faith in history."

As for the sensationalizing of private lives, Maysles distinguishes his film from the excesses that have followed.

"I like to describe the goal of 'direct cinema' as life as it is -- no better, no worse. For this kind of filmmaking, the biggest challenge is getting access. With Grey Gardens, we had it from the beginning. They trusted us, we trusted them. It's something that my brother David and I learned growing up, to be accepting of all kinds of people.

"So I don't see that we took the privacy of the Beales too far. Edie told me a story of how at her mother's deathbed she asked her if she had anything more to say. She said it was all on the film. It was the performance of a lifetime."

It's a performance that the filmmakers respected. That, suggests Maysles, is what distinguishes his work from those of today.

"Then there are people like Geraldo. Somebody from the program called me without identifying who they were and asked if they could show segments. Then I saw the show; it was terrible. They had gained access to Edie, who is living in Miami, and taped her. Their thesis was that the Kennedys were the American equivalent of the British royal family, and like the royal family they had members who were black sheep, crazy or 'retarded,' that the family tried to hide. When I watch that, I can appreciate more what we accomplished with Grey Gardens. Can you imagine if Michael Moore had made that film?"

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