Independent Lens: Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway

It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.

–Little Edie, Grey Gardens (1976)

The uplifting thing is they have found a system on how to live, partly with illusion and delusion and partly with some very real philosophies that get them through the day.

–Michael Musto, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway (2007)

“My mother would say, ‘Albie, there’s good in everybody,’ and that has been an important factor in my filming. I identified with ordinary people.” Albert Maysles’ story is doubtless true. But because he’s talking about how he came to make his 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, it takes on a whole other dimension, quite beyond categories of truth and fiction. That dimension is one inhabited by his documentary’s subjects, the Beales, maybe the least ordinary people who ever appeared in a film.

Their reputations are extended in another documentary, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, which is airing as part of PBS’ Independent Lens on 23 December. A charming, if aptly peculiar, holiday treat, the new documentary focuses on the translation of the documentary into a Broadway musical, with commentary from Maysles as well as artists involved in the stage version, from composer Scott Frankel to star Christine Ebersole. Everyone enthuses about the material, the richness of the Bealeses — Edith (Big Edie) and her daughter Little Edie — as “characters,” as well as the compelling story they embody. They duly note the Beales’ background — Edith was Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt, wealthy and privileged, who made tabloidy news in the 1970s when it was discovered that she and Little Edie were living as recluses in a 14-room Grey Gardens mansion on Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton.

“Mother and daughter ordered to clean house!”, reads one headline included in the film.. As Frankel notes, the story had all kinds of outrageous appeal, underscored by the repeated use of the phrase, “filth and squalor,” linked to financier Phelan Beale’s divorce from Edith and public disowning of his daughter (Edie had two brothers, not mentioned in this film), “I think there was a voyeuristic quality,” he says, “Even though Jacqueline Onassis was the most powerful, most beautiful woman in the world, even she had relatives that were a little off the beaten path.” A helpful, quaintly nostalgic black-and-white photo shows Jackie near a white-clothed dinner table, an image juxtaposed with clips from Grey Gardens, the Beales amid scraps of trash, scampering cats and raccoons, and dirty laundry. The contrast emphasizes the scandal attributed to the Beales, that they would “fall so far” from the elevated status granted them at birth.

Maysles says that his Grey Gardens, began when Jackie’s sister Lee Radziwill asked he and David to make a film about her childhood in the Hamptons, was a collaborative effort with the Beales, as they became friends during their six weeks of filming. Still, the film’s release ignited controversy, as some viewers believed it exploited the mother and daughter’s eccentricities. Todd Oldham offers one version of that concern in the new documentary, as he describes his affection for the film: “I hate to say it’s a car accident [where] you can’t avert your eyes. It’s far more compelling than that, but it’s just one of the most hypnotic glimpses into a very bizarre human psyche, that you can’t avert your eyes.”

This “accident” is, on one level extremely deliberate: both Edies saw themselves as performers first and foremost, the mother as a soprano and the daughter has a dancer. Their self-presentations for the camera are intricate, lyrical, and provocative, in ways that bring to light the dilemmas built into documentary. Indeed, when Frankel observes, “Even though it is a documentary and they’re making up the words as they go along, their sense of language is so extraordinary,” he’s underlining what’s at stake in the genre — that “made up words” are expected to be more “real,” less “extraordinary.”

Playwright Doug Wright says that while he admired the film, he was reluctant to take part in the musical: “To adapt it to the stage, which is all about artifice, would detract from the greatest thing about the film, which is its verisimilitude.” This may be the new film’s most potent point of focus, as it re-layers the inherent excesses of the musical as form (singing and dancing, props and performances directed at back rows) with another sort of “verisimilitude,” as participants think through what constitutes artifice and truth.

At the same time they pledge to adhere to the Beales’ reality, Wright, Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie agree that they are, in themselves and in the Maysles’ documentary, tremendous “characters.” Wright says they “definitely belong in a pantheon with the great Beckett heroines, the great Tennessee Williams heroines. I think they have that same beautiful damage.” Repeatedly, those who have made this damage visible, with all good intentions defer to Edith and Edie’s language and performances, the apparent desire of the recluses to make themselves and their rebellion public. At the center of the Beales’ legacy is the question of how they are represented — whether in the original film, in the Maysles’ 2006 follow-up/reconfiguration of unused footage (The Beales of Grey Gardens), in the musical, and now again, in the documentary about the musical. The Tony Award-winning musical certainly made the Beales’ story more “mainstream,” but at what cost? What is rebellion — if that’s what’s on display in Grey Gardens — if it’s celebrated on Broadway?

These are questions Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway doesn’t quite ask. It does, however, include a short section focused on the Marble Faun of the original documentary, Jerry Torre, now a cab driver in the city. The actor who plays him on stage, Matt Cavenaugh, says they shared a mutually happy meeting, and Maysles, who films him during a three-hour cab ride and a trip to Grey Gardens as it now stands (restored by current owners Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn). “It will always be comfortable and home to me,” he says, while paying his respects to the Beales. “I’m just flooded with memories.” The film leaves these unspoken.

RATING 6 / 10