A lot of movies that have been given the ‘cult film’ label are really nothing of the sort, but Grey Gardens is almost the definition of a cult phenomenon. 90% of the population have no idea what it is, but when you find somebody who does, it’s almost like you’ve discovered someone else who’s part of a secret club. Now it’s got a new Blu-ray release as one of the first Criterion Collection Blu-rays to be released in the UK.
Criterion has taken a long time jumping across the pond, as it’s been going in the US since the era of laserdiscs in the 1980s. However, now hopefully Britain will be able to get a taste of the collection, which is known for its attention to detail, intricate restorations and remastering, and good special features.
Grey Gardens is a great title to help kick it off. In case you are a virgin to the documentary, it was made in the 1970s by the acclaimed Maysles brothers, who were researching a possible film about one of the relatives of JFK, when they stumbled across the Beales – Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie, living in Grey Gardens. They were the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, but rather than living the high life you might expect for the relatives of the US elite, they were holed up in an increasingly ramshackle and overgrown house, with raccoons literally eating the walls.
Before the Maysles arrived, they’d been served an eviction notice due to state of the house, which they only managed to avoid with a major tidy up and some publicity. The documentary takes us into their eccentric and idiosyncratic lives, introducing us to two people who are unlike virtually any others. The cinema verite style allows the two Edie’s too flow over you without trying to present them as anything other than what they are, with their lives alternately funny, sad, bizarre, worrying and oddly enthralling.
Ever since it was released it’s faced accusations that it’s exploitative, with the cameras pushing into the lives of two people living on the edge who may have had mental health issues. However, that was countered by the fact the Edies loved the movie and also with the argument that just because people are different, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong or exploitative about showing them. In fact, the documentary is quite good at getting you wondering whether assumptions that there’s something ‘wrong’ with Little Edie may be more about our prejudices than anything about her.
Indeed, it is that difference – and particularly Little Edie’s unapologetic ability to be herself, from her unique fashion (including her legendary headscarves) to her singing to her idiosyncratic take on the world – that has made the movie so popular in the gay community. She is an outsider but she doesn’t care and in her own head sees and present herself as an ingénue, with diva-ish tendencies. The moments when she gets angry at her mother, who she often blames for the fact she never married and is now stuck looking after the aging woman in a place she doesn’t really want to live, makes you wonder how true that is, and how much her isolation there has actually protected her from a world that may not have accepted her in the way she thinks it may have.
Their almost Mommie Dearest arguments are a sight to behold, and it’s the sort of film that’s entertaining, eminently quotable and will leave you thinking afterwards. Indeed, even 40 years later it’s as relevant as it was when it was made. Its surprising timelessness has meant that over the years it’s been adapted as a musical, an opera and even became an HBO film starring Drew Barrymore. However, none could quite capture something quite this unique – of two people living in a decaying world, but who came from privilege and now don’t quite seem to exist on the same plane as the rest of us, or indeed who fully appreciate their own precarious situation. It’s a more powerful statement of the dangers of the American Dream than most literature that’s taken on the topic.
As you’d expect from Criterion, there’s some good special features, most notably the 2006 follow-up, The Beales Of Grey Gardens, which brings together some of the unused footage from the original shoot to further illuminate the Edies’ world. Although not as good as the original, it’s worth watching, as are the rest of the features. It also has to be said the main documentary has been given a beautiful restoration, which looks great without overly polishing it and losing the wonderful 70s veneer.
Overall Verdict: A cult classic in the true sense of the phrase given a great restoration and some good special features as part of the first Criterion titles to reach the UK.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac