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By Michael Dequina | July 9, 1990

Grey Gardens (PG)
Criterion Collection #123
Movie: [***] ; Presentation: [****]
Those who adhere to the wildly held, wildly wrongheaded notion that feature documentaries are “boring” obviously have not seen a film by the legendary team of Albert and David Maysles, who pioneered the method of “direct cinema”–in which the story and structure of each of their films was dictated by the reality of what they shot. The results were films of uncommon intimacy, honesty, and objectivity, free of all-knowing narration and other conventions of documentary filmmaking.
The Maysles’ 1975 film “Grey Gardens” found the filmmakers taking a more active role in the actual film than usual. The film takes its title from the crumbling, flea-infested mansion where 80-something “Big” Edie Beale and her 50-something daughter, “Little” Edie–both cousins of Jackie Onassis–live in virtual seclusion from the rest of the world. The Edies, particularly Little Edie, often address the Maysles directly, and sometimes the subject of them becomes a topic of conversation.
To call Big and Little Edie eccentrics is an understatement. Big Edie, who can barely walk, spends most of her days in bed wearing little clothing while her many cats do their business–all of it–all around her. She often laments the husband who abandoned her, but moreso the singing career she never had, and she takes every opportunity to show off her pipes. Not to be outdone, the headdress-wearing Little Edie, who very mysteriously left New York City in her 30s to live with her mother, hams it up even more for the camera, singing her own songs and doing numerous dance numbers. With such odd behavior filling its 94 minutes, “Grey Gardens” has been labeled exploitative, but one gets the sense that the Edies were welcome to such exploitation, seeing the film as the shot at fame that had long eluded them (and, indeed, it worked for Little Edie, who went on to become a cult fashion icon–as proven by interviews with designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett in the extras section of the DVD). The film’s real fascination, however, does not come through some morbid freak show angle but in its study of this strangely symbiotic relationship. While she frequently b*****s about lost gentleman callers and relates her desire to leave the house for good, Little Edie is every bit as dependent on her mother as Big Edie is to her; proof doesn’t come more clear in how Little Edie gets jealous whenever someone else–particularly a handyman named Jerry–commands Big Edie’s attention. There’s no denying that the Edies are two characters who can try one’s patience, but underneath all the theatrics is real pain, real love, and something altogether moving.
The Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of Grey Gardens offer a wealth of background into its film. Albert Maysles, the surviving brother of the team, offers insightful, informative, anecdote-heavy commentary on the disc along with his collaborators (editors/co-directors Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke). An even larger collection of photos is featured on the “Grey Gardens” disc, including numerous pictures and newspaper clippings featured in the film itself. More of Little Edie’s (who passed away only last month) philosophy can be heard in audio excerpts from an interview she did in 1976 for Interview magazine–and, in a clever hidden feature, a phone conversation between her and Albert Maysles that appears to have taken place in late 2000. Even in her 80s, she hadn’t lost any of the spunk she displayed nearly 30 years ago–much like her mother was at that age.
Specifications: 1.33:1 full frame; Dolby Digital mono; English subtitles.

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