Before reality shows like Real Housewives, Hoarders and Honey Boo Boo brought us so many crazy families that the Kardashians now seem as ordinary to us as the Cleavers – came the original tale of the eccentric family next door, GREY GARDENS (1975). TCM presented a gorgeous digital restoration of the classic documentary this morning at the Chinese Multiplex 1. Part of the festival’s overall theme of Family in the Movies, GREY GARDENS practically begged for inclusion in the Dysfunctional Families series of films.
GREY GARDENS centers on the claustrophobic world of a reclusive East Hamptons mother and daughter. Both named Edith Bouvier Beale, the former socialites, known as “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles originally set out to make a documentary about Onassis’ sister Lee Radziwill. But in the course of their research, they met the Beales. The filmmakers were so fascinated by the Beales’ decaying world—the mansion filled with garbage, no running water and raccoons roaming loose—that the focus of the project soon shifted.
We were very lucky to have filmmaker Albert Maysles in attendance at today’s screening. Mr. Maysles was welcomed with a standing ovation. He introduced the film briefly, saying it was love at first sight with the Beales. “You really get to know these people,” he observed. “It’s all them.” Maysles also admitted that he and his brother set out to live at Grey Gardens during filming. But once there, “[they] couldn’t take it. The smell was too pervasive.” After the film, Maysles sat down for a short interview by Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy Film Archive. They touched briefly on his early career and techniques of “observation.” But it was clear that Mr. Maysles was most passionate about the connection between filmmaker and subject. “It’s friendship,” he called it. “And boy do we need it.”
Maysles also took a few questions from the audience. One festivalgoer asked if there were other guests (aside from Big Edie’s birthday party attendees) during the Maysles’ time there. But Mr. Maysles recalled those being the only visitors. Another fan asked if he ever made personal judgments about his subjects. Maysles had a great answer. “Mother used to say there’s good in everybody. I make sure to get that.” And finally, he was asked how he knew when filming was complete. Maysles listed the elements he looked for on a shoot: emotional connection, finding common ground and insights into personality. “I hope that most people who see [GREY GARDENS] are shocked by it and don’t want to see any more,” he said in closing.
While GREY GARDENS may be Maysles’ best known work, his filmmaking career actually began two decades earlier. Trained as a psychologist, Maysles made his first documentary on a trip to Russia in 1955. The film, called Psychiatry in Russia, explored the conditions at several Soviet mental hospitals. A few years later, Maysles collaborated with Robert Drew on the classic JFK documentary Primary (1960). From there, Maysles teamed with his brother David to produce a series of high profile celebrity pieces, beginning with What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964). This work included the now iconic footage of the Beatles arriving at JFK, en route to their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Maysles brothers also turned out Meet Marlon Brando (1965), With Love From Truman (1966) (a film about Truman Capote) and the well-regarded Rolling Stones film Gimme Shelter (1970). But perhaps their best work of the period would come in 1968’s Salesman, a groundbreaking study of four door-to-door Bible salesmen. Mr. Maysles urged everyone at today’s screening to see Salesman. He proudly repeated author Norman Mailer’s take on the documentary—that it said “more about America than any other film.”
As for GREY GARDENS, perhaps the best review came from its subjects. Little Edie praised the film, humbly saying, “the Maysles have created a classic.” And a few years later, when Big Edie was dying, her daughter asked if she had any final thoughts. “There’s nothing more say,” she replied. “It’s all in the film.” Big Edie passed away in 1977; Little Edie in 2002. Maysles kept in touch with them through the years. He said that Little Edie moved to Florida and did eventually go on stage at a night club. The house was sold in 1979 and, along with the grounds, was completely restored. And in 2010, the documentary GREY GARDENS was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, as a culturally significant film.