Saturday, June 3, 2023


I thought I knew what let myself in for by watching “The Beales of Grey Gardens.”

The film is a sequel to “Grey Gardens,” Albert & David Maysles’ 1975 documentary that followed “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, cousins to Jackie Kennedy, living in poverty within a crumbling mansion in East Hampton, New York. The faded grandeur of the house, and the defiant beauty of the characters, has bewitched audiences ever since. 

For me, it came across as a cross between Bean Wheatley’s film of J.G. Ballard’s novel “High Rise”, with a tower block and its residents decaying into chaos while indifferent to the outside world, and “Steptoe and Son,” with the child bound to the parent and the house, but yearning to leave. Little Edie did eventually leave, and moved around a lot since, but only after her mother’s death, and after she could guarantee that any buyer of Grey Gardens would not demolish it. When the 2002 Academy Awards had its memorial montage of film industry people that died over the year, Little Edie was included, such was the cultural impact “Grey Gardens” has made.

“The Beales of Grey Gardens” was released in 2006, utilising more of the conversation that would not have been given time to breathe in the original film. The Maysles were proponents of “Direct Cinema,” which aimed to show life as it really is, achieved through developments in lighter and more portable cameras and sound equipment, and through using it to present the objective truth, without outside opinion or narration. However, in both this film and the original, the Maysles are a passive audience for both Big Edie and Little Edie - if the characters are inviting you into their lives, it makes it hard to stay detached for too long.

One sequence that I could not believe was left out of the original film is where you see the Maysles become active participants. They turn up for filming as usual, and Little Edie yells that the house is on fire. Sure enough, on the landing upstairs, a fire has broken out in a corner, an inevitability of tinder-dry wooden houses in that part of the US. Bowls of wood, and a blanket that was a gift from Jackie Kennedy, is used to put out the fire. Later, we see the hole caused by the fire has grown, from the wall into the floor, and a raccoon has made home in it. The answer? Lay down some bread for it, and allow the wildlife to continue taking over the house.

Anything I try to write here will not do justice to what you see in the films themselves, or to the people whose lives were followed. All I know is, the Beales live the way they wanted, Grey Gardens itself was restored, having been bought in 1979 for $220,000 and sold in 2017 for $15 million, by married “Washington Post” journalists Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, the latter portrayed by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s film “The Post”. The hole was replaced by a door.

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