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MRQE Top Critic

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A “new” documentary is being released this year, made from footage shot in the early 1970s. The footage shows the unkempt home life of two women, Edith Bouvier Beale, in her 70s, and her daughter Edie, in her 50s.

There was already a 1976 movie made from the this footage called Grey Gardens (available on a Criterion DVD). The “new” film, called The Beales of Grey Gardens, will carry a release date of 2006.

Grey Gardens

Big and Little edie aren't so strange after all
Big and Little edie aren’t so strange after all

The 1976 film is an interesting portrait, but frankly not so amazing as it probably was in the 1970s. The Beales are aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a fact that carries less and less interest with each passing year. As more Americans are born, fewer of them will know or care who Jackie Kennedy is, so the gawk factor of looking in on Jackie’s eccentric relatives is much lower.

On top of that, every schmoe with a video camera (including yours truly) is now capable of making a documentary about the eccentrics in their own family. And while the Maysles are hardly schmoes, the point is that there are a lot more documentary portraits of mild mental illness nowadays, so the voyeuristic intimacy revealed in the film is less of a wow factor as well.

So although the film itself hasn’t changed, its impact on an audience has, to the detriment of the film.

Intimate Portrait

Even so, the film has many merits. The portrait of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” really is intimate. The Maysles are excellent at insinuating themselves — genuinely — into the lives of their subjects. The Beales really open themselves up, hiding nothing from the Maysles.

The structure of the film is another strong suit. As a schmoe with a family documentary under stalled construction, I admire and appreciate the command of the material editors Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer demonstrate. Real-life conversations are never as neat and tidy as written dialogue, and it’s often hard to decide how to shape them into scenes. The editors overlap sound and picture to let the carefully-chosen last words of an edited conversation ring before moving on to the next scene. The simplicity of using cutaways and establishing shots to ease the transition between scenes does not diminish its effectiveness.

And of course the characters themselves work in the movie’s favor, too. I expected a portrait of mental illness, but instead, the movie tries to present the mother/daughter story. The subjects’ eccentricity is always on the screen, but always incidentally, and never as the main focus. When guests come to visit, our hosts dress up and carefully control what the guests can see. The guests are not brought up to the bedroom where the Beales usually eat, nor do the guests get to see the hole at the top of the stairs or the raccoons in the attic.

When there aren’t polite guests around, the way the Beales live doesn’t seem shocking, even though the health department had to take action against them. Perhaps that’s the beauty of what the Maysles and company did; they humanized the subjects and deflated the shock value of a story that had become sensationalized.

The biggest downside to Grey Gardens is that the story goes nowhere, as the film’s editors basically admit on the Criterion commentary track. They look for thematic coherence and say that they find it. But thematic coherence is not the same thing as a story arc, and it’s generally less satisfying.

The Beales of Grey Gardens

The 2006 movie, The Beales of Grey Gardens, is not actually a new movie. Or rather, it doesn’t use any new footage. The Beales are the same age as they were in Grey Gardens. The second film does not revisit them, nor ask where they are now. Instead, it seems to be an editor’s exercise: take footage shot 30 years ago for another film, and edit it into a new movie. One of the ground rules of this exercise seems to be that no footage used in the previous movie should be re-used.

This movie, edited by Ian Markiewicz, seems more random than the original. More things happen in this movie. If the other film seemed to be lacking a story arc, this film goes to the other extreme, offering endless new developments.

That’s not to say the second movie is any worse. In fact, it may have more immediate appeal precisely because it seems to move around more. (It has kittens! And a fire!) The movie adds a bit of an awkward romance, too, with little Edie flirting with the Maysles brothers. This movie also seems to put the footage into better context, with more acknowledgment of the era in which it was filmed.

The Beales of Grey Gardens makes two major contributions to the story of the Beales (aside from simply adding 90 minutes of footage). First, it offers modern audiences a better entree into the world of the Beales by being slightly more sensational. And second, it shows how solid and well-made the first film is by being less thematically coherent and more random.

Intended Audience

If the Beales and the Maysles aren’t on your radar, you probably have little reason to see either of these movies.

If you want to know how to edit a documentary, or if your interest in the eccentric Bouvier family is piqued, then you probably ought to start with the newer film, The Beales of Grey Gardens. Catch it at the theater, if you can. Then rent Grey Gardens on DVD. The background you’ll have gotten from the newer movie will let you appreciate the storytelling of the original movie all the more.