“Grey Gardens” was released by Criterion in 2001 with Spine Number 123. In 2006 they released the follow-up version assembled from outtakes, “The Beales of Grey Gardens” on a separate disc (Spine Number 361) and also as part of a two-disc set including “Grey Gardens.” This Blu-ray release is a single disc including both films but only with Spine Number 123, meaning that poor 361 has disappeared from the Blu-ray version of the Collection.
I wrote the following review in 2006 on the occasion of the release of “The Beales of Grey Gardens.” The other sections of the review address the 2013 single-disc Blu-ray release.
Ever since “Grey Gardens” was released in 1976, it has served as a Rorschach test for critics and viewers alike. The documentary drew an intimate portrait, often uncomfortably so, of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter… Edith Bouvier Beale, better known as Edith and Little Edie. Distant cousins of the Bouvier clan (Jacqueline Kennedy’s kin), the Beales were the very picture of tarnished aristocracy. Mother and daughter lived a life of seclusion in Grey Gardens, a decaying East Hampton mansion that had fallen harder than the House of Usher.
Amidst the encroaching weeds and roaming cats, the Beales still clung proudly to their Boston Brahmin sense of entitlement and dignity. Little Edie, then in her late 50s, modeled several different outfits per day and spoke often of her close connection to the Bouviers and other high society types. Edith, bedridden but hardly a shrinking violet, called all the shots: Edie, you should be ashamed; Edie, put on another costume for me; Edie, sing a song for me, and this time sing it right! The film became a cult hit as fans went gaga for the eccentric duo. Little Edie’s fashions spawned a fad of their own, and the forgotten Bouvier castoffs enjoyed a return to the spotlight, even if they would never make as many magazine covers as their more famous First Lady relative.
Some critics objected to the film’s portrayal of its subjects, seeing it as exploitation rather than celebration. The charge has some merit, especially considering the way many fans of the movie embraced it as high camp, laughing at the crazy, downtrodden, shut-in Beales. When Edie donned her skimpier costumes, her flabby, cottage-cheese thighs were on display for the whole world to see. Some thought it a riot, others found it degrading. Edie, a former fashion model, didn’t appear to care either way.
“Grey Gardens” was shot in direct cinema style by Albert and David Maysles, and their nominally objective approach encourages multiple interpretations of the film. Dave Kehr accuses the Maysles of directing the film “with an air of curdling condescension.” Albert Maysles claims to dearly love the Beales, and remained friends with them long after shooting ended. I always thought Little Edie came out of the film looking like royalty. Eccentric, sure. Crazy, maybe. But also unburdened by societal expectations. Or, rather, Edie is concerned only with the rules of a society she imagines exists, not the one folks outside of Grey Gardens live in. Some found her retreat into a fantasy world depressing or even risible, but as a coping mechanism, it makes perfect sense to me. For the record, Little Edie absolutely loved the film. Her only complaint was that she wished there was more singing and dancing.
That’s where “The Beales of Grey Gardens” (2006) comes in. Albert Maysles (David died in 1987) combed through unused footage from the original documentary, and edited an entirely new feature-length film from the outtakes. The new film focuses even closer on Little Edie, giving her more opportunities to sing and dance; she leads off the film with “You Ought to be In Pictures,” a perfect choice since she really ought to be. “The Beales of Grey Gardens” also includes many scenes in which the Maysles interact with their subjects, which reveals the “non-interference” policy of direct cinema as the nonsense it always was. Edie’s relationship (leaning towards the amorous side) with the Maysles is as interesting as anything else in the movie. The documentary also breaks away from the mansion grounds on a few occasions, showing Little Edie strolling on the beach or heading into town to go to church. Perhaps she wasn’t quite the hermit that “Grey Gardens” made her out to be.
The new documentary plays pretty much like the old one, and the main pleasure for fans is the opportunity to revisit the world of “Grey Gardens” once again, but this time with fresh material. I have always had mixed feelings about direct cinema, particularly regarding some of its bogus truth claims (claims admittedly made more often by ardent acolytes than the actual practitioners), but the accusations leveled at the Maysles are mostly unfair. I find both Edith and Little Edie to be genuinely charming in both movies. The Beales are true American originals who resisted conformity with gusto and style, and both “Grey Gardens” movies capture their singular spirit with warmth and affection. If some viewers choose to mock, that reflects more on them than the Beales or the films.
“The Beales of Grey Gardens” doesn’t explore much new territory, but it’s as enjoyable as the first film. And since Little Edie passed away in 2002, it only seems fitting to give her one more turn on stage.
Both films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. You might not think a documentary shot on 16 m would benefit greatly from a high-def upgrade, but the new “2K digital restoration” has produced some significant improvements in “Grey Gardens.” For one, there’s more information visible in the frame than on the prior SD release, a bit more at both the top and bottom and this somehow makes the many close-ups look even more impressive. The image detail isn’t quite as sharp as on many 1080p transfers; however it shows us just how mediocre the image quality of the old SD was. What was ever-so slightly fuzzy or at least just a bit lacking has now been brought into sharp resolution. Flesh tones are also more naturalistic. I didn’t expect so much of a difference.
“The Beales of Grey Gardens” is also presented in high-def, but I don’t think it went through the same restoration process. Since the film was made from outtakes, it already didn’t look as good as the original “Grey Gardens” and now including as an extra on this Blu-ray, the difference is more marked. Still, it’s not bad at all and the high-def is a step up from the 2006 SD. But it is rough in patches.
The LPCM Mono audio track is crisp though the audio isn’t always perfectly recorded on set. I don’t think there’s much of a difference with the upgrade to lossless audio, but it’s perfectly solid. English subtitles are sometimes necessary and are provided as supplements to the English audio.
As mentioned above, this single Blu-ray disc (this is not a dual format release like other Criterions now are) includes “Grey Gardens” as the main feature and “The Beales of Grey Gardens” as a supplement. These were originally separate titles with their own keepcases and spine numbers.
All of the extras have been imported from the old SD “Grey Gardens” release.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track, recorded in 2001, by filmmakers Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke. I admit I’ve never listened to this. “Grey Gardens” is such a performance piece, it’s difficult to listen to a separate, simultaneous commentary.
We get an audio excerpt (40 min.) of an interview of Little Edie conducted by Kathryn G. Graham for the April 1976 issue of “Interview” magazine. Albert Maysles also shot two other interviews in 2001 for the Criterion with designers Todd Oldham (5 min.) and John Bartlett (5 min.) who talk about the influence Little Edie’s fashions had on their careers.
The disc also includes a Scrapbook with three different stills galleries: Family Photos, Behind-the-Scenes, and Cats. Of course there are pictures of cats. There are always pictures of cats everywhere in the Internet age. Edie and Little Edie were ahead of their time once again.
There is also a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) and a TV Spot (38 sec.)
A 2006 introduction by Albert Maysles (8 min.) was the only extra on Criterion’s “The Beales of Grey Gardens” disc and it has been included along with the film.
The slim fold-out booklet includes the essay by “New Yorker” staff writer Hilton Als that was originally included with the 2001 SD release. The Michael Musto essay in the booklet for the 2006 release of “The Beales of Grey Gardens” has not been reprinted for this Blu-ray release.
“Grey Gardens” has slowly colonized popular culture, achieving a second life as a Broadway and as a well-reviewed but completely unnecessary 2009 feature film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. And now it has entered the Blu-ray age as well with a surprisingly transformative high-def transfer of ‘Grey Gardens” that might be worth a double dip for really devoted fans. The extras are still fairly skimpy, but you now get two films for the price of one.