This article was originally published in 2006.
When the Maysles Brothers released their masterwork “Grey Gardens” some 30 years ago, Roger Ebert wrote about the film and its subjects, Edith and Edie Beale, saying that “… a slow disintegration has set in; rooms of their mansion and areas of their lives have been closed off, one at a time, left to the forages of raccoons and memories.” When Albert Maysles recently opened his film vault and realized there was enough unseen footage to create a feature-length follow-up to the classic documentary, those memories were gently reawakened. “The Beales of Grey Gardens” is made up entirely of this precious footage, and in the spirit of both The Maysles and The Beales, the images are left to speak for themselves – no interviews, no voiceovers, just the pictures and sounds of life as it unfolded for two eccentric women who insisted on living it their way.
“The Beales of Grey Gardens” will premiere in IFC Center‘s “Waverly Midnights” program in New York City starting tonight (July 21st), and will run for three consecutive weekends. I recently sat down to speak with legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles about the legacy of The Beales and the state of documentary film today:
indieWIRE: In “The Beales of Grey Gardens”, I noticed that Little Edie said, “I don’t want anyone to play me.”
Al: Yeah, and everybody’s playing her now, right?
iW: Not only on Broadway, but I noticed that Drew Barrymore is slated to play her in an upcoming film.
Al:Yeah. Coming up in the end of…I think it’s next October that they start production. Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
iW: What would Little Edie think of that?
Al: Well, the filmmakers were kind enough to submit the script to me. I don’t read many scripts, so I kind of gave it to a friend and they thought it was good.
iW: Well, Edie clearly gave her blessing to you to portray her accurately, as we can see in the new documentary footage.
Al: But she also said that the only complaint she had about “Grey Gardens” was that there wasn’t enough singing and dancing.
iW: Well this latest installment certainly fixes that. I always got the feeling that she thought you could rescue her somehow. How did that make you feel?
Al: I’ll tell you, we once made a film [“Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton“] about a very poor family in the South. For me, that film was the biggest help to those people.
iW: I think you did rescue her in a way, by validating and documenting her existence.
Al: And because The Beales ended their seclusion on their own terms.
iW: “Grey Gardens” is kind of magical that way. Now why did you wait thirty years to release this follow up?
Al: Oh! It didn’t occur to us to do it.
Al: It was probably because of watching all the outtakes. And with everything blossoming in one direction or another we thought, “Oh well, there’s so much good stuff there, let’s pull that out and see what we have.”
iW: And it’s all so poignant now. It makes for a great companion piece.
Al: When Mrs. Beale was dying, Little Edie was with her, and she came back to us and said, “You know, in one of those last moments I cared for my mother, I asked if there’s something more she wanted to say, and she said, ‘It’s all in the film.'”
iW: Well, thirty years later it’s still there. How do you feel about the state of documentary film now, thirty years on?
Al: Well, it – maybe this isn’t modest for me to say – but people who are practicing it have still yet to catch up with what we were doing… What we’ve been doing all these years, it’s so much more. Most documentary is still too old fashioned, with straight interviews… you know, anything to get away from the most vital device that it has, which is simply to let the camera not interfere.
iW: That’s as close to the truth as you can get really, unless there’s no camera at all.
Al: Well no camera at all would be worse because it would be without a brain. Or sensitivity. If we were able to stick a camera up in the hidden part of the Beales’ wall and let it run for a week, we still wouldn’t have had an audio visual representation of the women that would be as true.
iW: I agree. I think when the camera’s turned on, the subject is forced to consider their own story, and The Beales definitely had one. “Grey Gardens” obviously influenced scores of filmmakers, but it even influenced theater and fashion and so many other things. Did you ever dream the film would become such an iconic piece of work?
Al: All we cared about was getting it straight. And if there was drama developing you know, there we were – we got it.
iW: Wasn’t it considered an instant classic?
Al: It’s funny that you say that because when we finished making the film, we brought the film with a projector to Grey Gardens, and afterwards Edie paused for a moment and then turned towards me, and in a very loud voice she shouted, “The Maysles have created a classic!” So that’s one up on you, right? She already said that.
iW: That’s an early review, indeed.
Al: It’s funny you know, if you read the original New York Times review… the guy was totally out to lunch. He ended up by saying he thought it was a terrible exploitation of two people who were so crazy that they couldn’t understand that they were being exploited. And he said, “Why are they showing all this flabby flesh?” A little problem with age. But actually, even more disturbing than that, was that Edie read it and wrote an answer to it, and they refused to publish it because the editor told me, “You can’t publish this. She’s schizophrenic.”
iW: Wow. They missed the boat on that one.
Al: Stupidity in the highest form.
iW: Right. And that is often a question people ask about your documentaries: Are you exploiting your subject?
Al: Well, there are two things that you ought to avoid… exploiting and being so protective that you’re overdoing the project and don’t allow the person to really come through. So you have to be very discreet.
iW: I think there’s a lot of exploiting going on now where filmmakers create situations that are false.
Al: Oh yeah. I mean, reality shows. Who needs all that profanity? Come on. There’s a film that I’m doing now [“In Transit“] about people on trains. And it’s not just interviewing a person – it’s going to be in half a dozen different countries, different cultures. I met a woman at the train that was pulling out of Pittsburgh and I stopped filming her because she was getting nervous. Something was going on. And I find out that the reason she was on the train was that when she was three years old, her parents broke up in an ugly divorce. Her father got custodianship, and she would never see her mother again. Why is she on the train? The night before, she got a call from a woman in Philadelphia. “Get on the next train, I’ll be waiting here at the station.” So that’s when I got off the train with her and filmed the encounter. It turns out the mother finally puts her head over her daughter’s shoulder, cries, and says she’s gorgeous.
iW: That’s proof that there’s a story in everyone.
Al: When my daughter was four years old, we went to pick up the New York Times the night before it hit the stands, as we often did. So one day we went there and the paper hadn’t arrived yet. I’m kind of fidgeting… so she turned to me, four years old, and said, “Daddy, the paper’s not ready because the people haven’t been killed yet.”
Al: So, just the other day I picked up this little poem by William Carlos Williams. It’s kind of a corollary to her statement: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” In a way, it’s saying what Rebecca was saying then.
Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
I come, my sweet,
to sing to you!
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
— From Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, by William Carlos Williams, 1955