The Beales: Grey Days

The Beales: Grey Days


For whatever reason gay dudes love Grey Gardens. Little Edie does certainly have her own concept of style, but I still don't exactly understand how that translates to gay culture - not everyone dresses like a woman. Anyway, the cult status of this Maysles Brothers' film from 1975 has been steadily gaining more and more notoriety over the few decades since its release. First there was a musical and then, just a few years ago, Criterion saw fit to reissue the film in a much expanded package. But even this didn't have the cultural impact on the general public that the HBO project has.

Staring Drew Barrymore alongside Jessica Lange as the two Edies, watching this film may benefit those that haven't as of yet watched the documentary, if they now intend to do so.

In the Maysles' film, it becomes clear that the Beales are - or more appropriately, were at one time - part of a weird American aristocracy that the founding fathers never intended to exist. There isn't a backdrop to how the Beales arrived at their station in life - which by the time viewers get to peak into their lives is much diminished from the pre-depression grandeur. But still, both Edie's live in an audaciously large home on the ocean. It might be filled with empty cat food cans and too many animals to count, but it was once clearly a palace.

Part of the Maysles stake in documentary film history has to do with the pair's ability to watch people, film them and remain detached from the proceedings. This particular project was most likely a bit more difficult due to the fact that the younger Edie occasionally speaks directly to the film makers. But that's part of her charm - her detachment from reality, her surroundings and life in general. How this all came about, though isn't firmly established. It is in some ways its hinted at and recounted in asides, but nothing all too in depth.

By contrast, the HBO project is as much context as explication of the Beales descent into poverty. For instance, while in the documentary, the house appears disheveled at best, there does appear to be a fresh coat of paint covering the walls. The Maysles don't explain that Jackie Onassis, cousin galore, swung the Beales a few dollars to maintain their home as city officials began to threaten some sort of action if the grounds were not better kept.

More importantly, perhaps, to the arc of the story, is the HBO films' depiction of the lighter moments of the Beales lives. Of course, the real Edies are never too far away from recounting some lavish stories, but the pair are not necessarily to be considered reliable narrators. The Drew Barrymore character, though, is shown to gallivant with married men, dance and pick up checks from her father prior to her descent. And in this last aspect of little Edie's situation is what the Maysles intended to leave out. By detaching either of the Edies from outsiders, it serves to make them seem more of a spectacle, almost in human. Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but the people that the Maysles caught on film were unquestionably wholly different than what they had once been.