Heartfelt, funny and unbearably tragic
We better check on mother and the cats. She's a lot of fun, I hope she doesn't die. I hate to spend another winter here though. Oh God, another winter.Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “little Edie” Bouvier Beale were respectively the aunt and the first cousin of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together in a derelict mansion in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighbourhood of East Hampton, New York for more than 50 years. The house was called Grey Gardens because of the colour of the dunes, the cement garden walls and the sea mist. They had limited funds and as the decades drew on they lived in ever increasing squalor and isolation – abject poverty might be a better term. Their plight came to a head during 1971 when their living conditions (infested with fleas, cats, raccoons, no running water, rubbish, decay, rot and filth) were exposed by a newspaper and as a consequence the pair faced eviction and demolition of their house by the authorities unless it could be brought up to code (fortunately Big Edie’s aunt stepped in to assist).Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles on passing on a documentary about socialite Lee Radziwill decided instead to focus on the Beale’s; their relationship, living conditions and general attitude towards life. The pair spent several months filming the two women as they went about their daily routines, talking, arguing, and reminiscing as they blur the lines between the past and the present. What emerged is an intimate portrait of a mother/daughter relationship of two once high society girls with advantage and standing, who through suggested elements of mental distress have found themselves at the lowest ebb of poverty and yet they thrive. The pair talk candidly on all subjects, Little Edie in particular spouts rhetoric about any idea in her head and it is, in part, due to her dress-sense and outlook that brought her cult fandom. Never exploitative and always sympathetic to the two women, this fascinating little documentary is at once heartfelt, funny and unbearably tragic.
Picture QualityThe disc presents a 2K restored full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio transfer in 1080p using the AVC codec and is Region locked to B. It is worth noting that this is exactly the same disc as the US release, only coded for B.
Filmed with 35mm film, but in a very documentary style (hand held, fly on the wall approach) the work done by Criterion (especially when compared to the 2006 ‘sequel’, also included on this set) is incredible. Detail is sharp and precise, when you can see flies walking up and down walls, stains and readable newspaper print on mattresses and clear indications of decay so rotten you ought to be able to peel the paper off the walls, you know the image is good. Skin texture is apparent as are clothing weaves, especially on Little Edie’s outfits. The mangy looking cats fur, the wood grain in the floor boards, the dripping paint drying on the door frames all have clear defined edges.
Colour is really vibrant with all the primaries coming off as bold and strong with no wash or bleed. Check out the lush green of the overgrown gardens, or the blues of the sky or the oranges/yellows of Big Edie’s bedroom walls (ignore all the grime!). Flesh tones are natural enough.
Colour is really vibrant with all the primaries coming off as bold and strong
Brightness and contrast are set to give very strong blacks that add a great deal of punch to the image (the filming style negates much depth) and while there is little to no use of shadow detail blacks don’t crush either. White remains firm and unshakeable, with no clipping even against the sky or breaking wave line.
Digitally there are no compression issues or edge enhancement. The original print is in very nice condition, damage is very confined, there are many instances of hair in the camera gate and there the grain structure varies from scene to scene, but is never intrusive and never crawls. In all a terrific filmic image.
Sound QualityJust the one track to choose from: English LPCM 2.0 Mono. The sound was recorded live and at the time with no looping after the fact, it is therefore raw and uncompromising and yet the clean-up afforded by Criterion has revealed plenty of depth. Dialogue is clear precise and always audible, that includes much of Big Edie calling from outside of the filming room! Ambient sounds, such as trees rustling, wind and waves etc. make up part of the track and are present, if you turn up the track you can make out this part if you so wish, but it is really all about the dialogue. It can fluctuate in volume, depending on the distance between the mic and the subjects, they move around at lot and this can become a factor, but everything is clear. Little to no dynamic range, there is nothing to adhere to, but even when turned above reference there is no hint of shrillness, or any background intrusions such as hiss, pops or cracks. Excellent stuff.
ExtrasThe Beales of Grey Gardens – In 2006 using unused footage from the original shoot this sequel was constructed. It follows a very similar format but contains more conversations between the brothers and the two women as well as more ‘dancing and singing’. Quality is rough compared to the main feature.
Introduction to The Beales of Grey Gardens - Albert Maysles explains how, and why, the sequel came about.
Audio Commentary – With contributions from Albert Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde and Susan Froemke as they talk about the who’s, why’s, wherefores and whatever’s of the film.
Little Edie – Audio interview recorded by Kathryn G. Graham for the April 1976 issue of Interview magazine, Little Edie illuminates with more of her philosophies on life.
Interviews – With designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett as they discuss the continuing influence of Grey Gardens, specifically Little Edie and her outfits.
Scrapbook– Three ‘albums’ of behind the scenes photographs.
Trailer and TV spot
Blu-ray VerdictGrey Gardens is the name of one of the mansions in the exclusive Georgica Pond neighbourhood of East Hampton, New York; it is also owned by Edith Bouvier Beale the aunt of one Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (former US First Lady). Big Edie, as she is affectionately known, lives with her daughter, known as Little Edie, but their home is a picture of disrepair and squalor. Having been saved from eviction and forced demolition, the pair find themselves at the centre of a documentary by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles; whose portrait of these two recluses, who live in such filth and degredation, shows a mother/daughter bond that thrives on their constant bickering, reminiscing and support. It is a fascinating little documentary that has provided inspiration for fashion designers, film makers and storytellers for years (this documentary has even been made into a TV show) and placed Little Edie into cult fandom. At its heart it neither exploits nor judges and is always sympathetic to the two women, being both heartfelt and funny while also being unbearably tragic at the same time.
A fascinating little documentary
As a Blu-ray package this set from Criterion matches its American release (is in fact the same disc recoded) with a blisteringly filmic picture that is bright, detailed and colourful, while the sound keeps to the point exactly, being audible at all times. The good selection of extras delve a little further into the subject and also includes the 2006 sequel as well.
The film itself may not be one of the best known, but it hails a momentous time: Criterion are finally coming to UK (Region B) shores and this can only be regarded as a great thing.
You can buy Grey Gardens on Criterion Blu-ray here
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