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Grey Gardens (1976): The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Grey Gardens (1976) movie poster Grey Gardens

Theatrical Release: February 20, 1976 / Running Time: 95 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer

Subjects: Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, Brooks Hyers, Norman Vincent Peale, Jack Helmuth, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Gerard Joseph Torre, Lois Wright

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American brothers Albert and David Maysles began making documentaries together in the 1960s. From 8-minute behind-the-scenes shorts to 90-minute features, their work brought viewers closer to the likes of The Beatles, Marlon Brando, and Truman Capote. But the film for which these siblings will forever best be known is Grey Gardens,
a 1976 release that turned a spotlight on an eccentric mother and daughter who couldn't seem further from artists and celebrities.

Edith "Big Edie" Beale was the aunt of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, which made her daughter "Little Edie" a first cousin of the former First Lady. The glamour and grace that made Kennedy an icon is nowhere to be found at Grey Gardens, the ramshackle East Hampton, Long Island estate where both Edies have long lived. The place is full of feral cats, which the two women feed, and flies are often spotted buzzing around. There are multiple raccoons in the attic, who also get fed kibble and bread even as they demolish the wall.

There's nothing healthy about this family's relationship or the way that they live, which makes them arresting subjects of a feature film. The Maysles don't have to do much, just point the camera in the right direction and edit the material into a digestible presentation. They do both of those things and the Beales do the rest. Big Edie and Little Edie acknowledge the camera and address it, but they do not appear to put on any airs for it. Their natural interaction captivates, showing us a manner of speaking and acting presumably quite different from our own.

56-year-old spinster Little Edie is the more focal of the Beales. From bed, Edith "Big Edie" Beale looks at old pictures in a folder Little Edie has just ripped trying to take from her.

Little Edie is a 56-year-old spinster, but not really by choice. Not happy in the house or in what she considers the country, she likes to show off her singing and dancing abilities and always hide her evidently thinning hair with head scarves. Big Edie celebrates her 79th birthday in the film. The two ladies enjoy quotes from literature and singing songs from Broadway shows. Big Edie is homebound with little mobility and Little Edie doesn't seem to get much further than just outside the decaying estate. Little Edie grows tired of a teenager who visits the women and performs some repairs with an endgame, in her mind, of sex with her.

The two Beales are out of touch with reality, especially the mother who is remarkably critical of Little Edie, whom she paints as a handful from youth in contrast to her well-behaved, unseen brothers. The animosity hanging over this bedroom-sharing arrangement never makes more sense than a sequence in which Little Edie recalls the marriage proposal from a young man she wasn't even given the chance to respond to. The long-abandoned Big Edie is content with romantic solitude and heavy dependence on her daughter. Meanwhile, Little Edie, who cites the Catholic Church, swimming and dancing as the three causes she believes in, dreams of leaving this place and even taking a rat hole in New York City.

Grey Gardens is a home to cats, people, and no shortage of junk. The always head-scarved, apparently patriotic Little Edie waves a flag and dances in "Grey Gardens."

Grey Gardens is simultaneously tragic, comic, unbelievable and far too real to question. It's tough to accept that anyone could live this way, especially once-wealthy socialites one degree removed from the White House. Sharing directing credit with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, the Maysles,
whose other credits include the Rolling Stones U.S. concert tour documentary Gimme Shelter and the 1974 Academy Award-nominated short Christo's Valley Curtain, have somehow gained unfettered access to this decaying 28-room mansion and have the good sense to stay out of the picture and let these two strong personalities go on with life as if the cameras weren't even there. The result is a fascinating piece of cinema that entrances today as much as it ever did.

Grey Gardens was admitted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2010. A year earlier, the film got a boost in recognition by inspiring an HBO television movie of the same name starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the daughter and mother. As HBO movies tend to, the 2009 production cleaned up at the Emmys, winning six awards from seventeen nominations. Long before HBO dramatized it, the documentary was released to DVD by The Criterion Collection in August 2001, mere weeks after the film made its long overdue home video debut on VHS from a studio called Homevision.

In 2006, Criterion distributed The Beales of Grey Gardens, a documentary newly completed by Albert Maysles composed of footage shot for the original film, also making the complementary films available in a two-disc box set. Earlier this month, the two documentaries reached Blu-ray in a Criterion disc retaining the original's DVD spine number, 123.

Grey Gardens: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio)
Grey Gardens: 1.0 LPCM (English), The Beales: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Movies Subtitled, Extras Not
Release Date: December 10, 2013
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Grey Gardens still available on DVD ($24.95 SRP; August 14, 2001) and Amazon Instant Video; Previously released as DVD Box Set (December 5, 2006) and VHS
The Beales of Grey Gardens still available on DVD ($19.95 SRP; December 5, 2006)


The Blu-ray's 1.33:1 presentation is limited some by the modest production methods. Though grainy, the 35mm picture is quite good, keeping the element sharp, clean, and consistent indoors and out with seemingly minimal lighting. Criterion presents the monaural soundtrack in uncompressed LPCM format. It is adequate, the recordings remaining audible despite the age and the nature of documentaries.

Little Edie hits the beach and keeps her head covered in "The Beales of Grey Gardens." The Beales of Grey Gardens love their ice cream!


The set's big extra is the aforementioned The Beales of Grey Gardens (1:31:18), a 2006 follow-up feature sold separately on DVD and in a premium box set. For it to be included on the Blu-ray here, earning a mention on the front cover but not the spine, without raising Criterion's standard $39.95 list price is a pretty cool thing.

The film is comprised entirely of footage shot back in the 1970s for the original movie. Surprisingly, the Maysles have enough outtakes to form this companion feature. It shows us more of the cats and much more of Little Edie, as she deals with a house fire, talks politics, ruminates on horoscopes' role in finding a suitable husband,
discusses the health benefits of going to Church on Sunday morning, goes sunning on the beach, and shows interest in the brothers telling her story. It may not stand entirely on its own, but with foreknowledge of the Beales, this manages to entertain in a similar fashion as the original.

Beales is joined by an on-camera introduction (8:31) by Albert Maysles explaining the rationale behind releasing this additional footage in 2006 and why it wasn't used back in the original movie. It features some clips of the teenage handyman from the film, who was driving a New York City cab then.

The remaining extras apply to the original film but hold relevance to each. They begin with a Grey Gardens feature audio commentary recorded in 2001 by Albert Maysles, co-directors/editors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, and associate producer/editor Susan Froemke. There's so little interaction between the speakers that we assume at least some of them are recorded separately and patched together. Surprisingly, the ladies get the bulk of airtime, dispensing observation and reflection on both the filming and people's reactions to it, with Maysles sharing more technical talk. It's a good listen.

Fashion designer John Bartlett shares his appreciation for the film and acknowledges the influence of its subjects. Documentarian brothers The Maysles are photographed between the Beales in this scrapbook image.

In audio excerpts (40:51) from an interview for Interview magazine's April 1976 issue, Little Edie talks about the movie, the Maysles (she repeatedly says she's "mad about the Maysles"), her life, her home and its traumatizing legal raid, her "terribly good-looking" brothers, and Watergate. It's an illuminating listen that confirms that the Little Edie from the movie is the genuine article.

More recent video interviews from 2001 collect thoughts from fashion designers Todd Oldham (5:25) and John Bartlett (5:23), each of whom expresses admiration for the film, shares their history seeing it, and acknowledges the influence the Beales' styles have had on their work.

Three viewer-navigated scrapbooks present 18 family album photos showing the Beales in more glamorous days, 91 mostly black & white behind-the-scenes photos from production, and four pages of the cats seen on the premises.

A theatrical trailer and TV spot promote the release of "Grey Gardens" to New York's The Paris theater. The Blu-ray's menu plays distant sounds over this fitting shot of Grey Gardens.

The on-disc extras conclude with a trailer (2:15) and TV spot (0:38) for Grey Gardens' New York release. The former promotes the documentary with press clippings and critical praise, while the latter makes greater use of clips from the film.

The disc's menu serves up a static shot of the house while sound clips play from what feels like a distance once, without repeating.
The original movie enables you to set bookmarks and, as always, the disc also gives you the chance to resume playback of anything and everything.

The fun doesn't end there, though. The clear keepcase, which displays a chapters list on its reverse side, also holds a foldable booklet that opens up to eight pages. It supplies transfer information, disc credits, and Hilton Als' 2001 DVD essay "Staunch Characters", which discusses his experience of interviewing Little Edie in 1998 and celebrates the Maysles for letting their subjects remain the film's primary interest.

Not making this booklet is the essay attached to The Beales of Grey Gardens DVD by Michael Musto, a presumably minor loss that's worth mentioning nonetheless.

In "Grey Gardens", Little Edie Beale caters to her mother's desires in the dilapidated East Hampton mansion they share.


Grey Gardens is an endlessly fascinating documentary that lets us into a bizarre house with zero pretense. Released over thirty years later, The Beales of Grey Gardens gives us more of the same from unused footage. Short of a missing Michael Musto essay on The Beales (and the obviously unlicensable decorated recent HBO docudrama), Criterion's Blu-ray Disc delivers everything it should in satisfying fashion.

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Reviewed December 22, 2013.

Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1976 Portrait Films, Inc., 2006 Maysles Films, 2013 Janus Films and The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.