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Sanctuary of ‘Grey Gardens’

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Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Anyone who sees “Grey Gardens” isn’t likely to forget it.

The 1976 documentary, directed by Albert and David Maysles, takes us into the strange world of aging debutante Little Edie Beale, who lives with her mother, Big Edie, in a squalid 28-room mansion, the Grey Gardens of the title, in East Hampton, N.Y.

Members of the Bouvier clan--Big Edie was Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ aunt and Little Edie her cousin--the Beales have turned their backs on their relatives and retreated to a realm all their own; in fact, when the Maysles brothers shot the film in the summer of 1973, the Beales hadn’t left the house since 1961, when they attended John Kennedy’s inauguration.

Playing through Thursday in a new 35mm print at the Nuart, “Grey Gardens” is a testament to the spirit and humor that sustain these eccentric women in a life riddled with disappointment.

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Through photographs we learn both had been great beauties in their youth. Big Edie’s husband, however, left her long ago, and Little Edie has never married. Consequently, their worlds revolve around each other. Like mischievous children, they eat ice cream in bed, surrounded by cats, and pass the time with the endless bickering that grows out of profound intimacy.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” Little Edie wistfully points out, as her mother boils corn on a hot plate next to her bed. Dressed in a bathing suit and torn fishnet hose, her head wrapped in a towel held in place with a large broach, Little Edie has an outlandish sense of style that gives little indication of her family pedigree.

Born in 1893, Big Edie Beale had two brothers: “Black” Jack Bouvier, who made a fortune on Wall Street and fathered Jackie Kennedy in 1929; and Bud Bouvier, who made his money in oil and drank himself to death before he was 40.

An aspiring singer, Edie Beale made a few records before her 1916 marriage to Phelen Beale, an Alabama-born aristocrat whose grandfather was pals with Jefferson Davis. Little Edie Beale was born in 1918, the second of three children. (Edie’s younger brother, Bouvier Beale, became a lawyer; her older brother, Phelen Beale Jr., went into business in Oklahoma; both brothers are now dead.)

In 1923 Phelen Beale Sr. moved his wife and children into Grey Gardens, where he abandoned them 10 years later; when he died in 1956, his estate went to his second wife. Forced to rely on her family for the money to raise her children, Big Edie withdrew into seclusion, and after her children reached adulthood she lived alone at Grey Gardens. In 1936, Little Edie had a lavish coming-out party in New York’s Pierre Hotel, and she spent the next 16 years in Manhattan attempting to establish a career as a dancer.

Then in 1952 Little Edie returned to Grey Gardens. Whether that return was a result of her inability to make a life for herself, or because her mother needed her, is a subject of endless debate between them in the film.

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“There’s a tendency to pigeonhole people based on superficial things,” says Albert Maysles, speaking by phone from his office in Manhattan. “I once showed this film to a group of psychotherapists, and after the screening they began discussing the Beales in diagnostic terms--schizophrenic this, delusional that. When they finished their gibberish, I said that I saw many signs of health in the Beales and listed a few; they don’t have television, they don’t drink, and they have a strong bond between them. I’ve always believed their lifestyle was their way of [thumbing] their noses at the aristocracy and all its snobbery.”

Little Edie Beale, who’s lived alone since her mother’s death in 1977, confirms this in a phone interview from her home in Florida.

“I couldn’t stand what you had to go through in our family,” she says, speaking in the inimitable Long Island lockjaw peculiar to America’s best families. “They were all social climbers, and that to me is horrible.

“My mother was a singer and she had no interest in bridge games and country clubs,” she says. “Mother was singing and leading her own life, and the family was awful to her because of it. My mother was magnificent, though, and I was happy to live with her alone because we had a life we liked that was private and beautiful.”

The outside world began intruding on the Beales’ sanctuary in 1971, when the Suffolk County Health Department inspected Grey Gardens and cited it for several violations. When that failed to elicit a response, the East Hampton city fathers raided the house on the grounds that the Beales were harboring diseased cats. Tabloid headlines about “Jackie’s aunt” followed, as did a third inspection, in December 1971, that resulted in a threat of eviction that was never carried out.

“Mother and I were doing fine, then suddenly we were plunged into something awful when Jackie Kennedy sent [her sister] Lee Radziwill down and made me sign a paper firing our lawyer,” says Beale. “Then they started slandering me and they raided our house without a search warrant. They said the house didn’t belong to us and that I was crazy and should be put away. I am definitely not crazy, and have always been terribly solid. All I can say is that everyone was very cruel.”

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The Maysles brothers’ movie took root two years after that ruckus, when Radziwill approached them about making a film portrait of her family that would include the Beales. When the filmmaking team--which included Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke--met the Edies, however, the Radziwill project fell by the wayside.

“The Bouvier girls wanted to make a movie about their childhood and they sent the Maysleses to take pictures of us,” Beale recalls. “Suddenly these strange men appeared at our house with cameras, and they went up to my mother’s bed and began photographing her. I read the New York Times so I recognized them, and I said, ‘My God, you’re the Maysleses!’

“We agreed to let them film us because we had no money for food, and they paid us for allowing them to film us,” says Beale who, with her mother, was then consuming $180 worth of ice cream a month. “Not that the Maysleses had money. They made the film on a shoestring, and though it took just five weeks to shoot it, it took them three years to get it to the point where they could show it. I guess it’s done well, but I don’t like documentaries. They’re depressing and I don’t understand them.”

Little Edie’s life changed dramatically in 1979, when she sold Grey Gardens.

“Mother told me to sell Grey Gardens to prevent it from falling into Jackie’s hands, so I sold it for pennies to these wonderful people, [Washington Post editor] Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn. Somebody took me to see the house after they moved in, and though I just saw it from the outside, I’ll tell you something I don’t like: in America they won’t leave the old stuff like they do in England. Grey Gardens looks like everything else now, and there used to be something quite terrific about it.”

After selling Grey Gardens, Beale moved to Florida. In the mid-’80s she spent two years in Montreal, then she returned to Florida where she’s spent the past 13 years.

“My big dream in life has been to live in Miami, and I live in an adorable suburb called Surfside that’s like a little French village,” says Beale, now 80.

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“I’m always alone--I’ve never lived with a man and I’m just an old maid. I’ve had a difficult life and this is the end, so I’m planning my funeral and have a few things to finish. I’m trying to be happy during my last days in Florida and I’m not gonna kill anybody,” she says with a sigh.

“Grey Gardens” stands as a high point in the collaboration between David and Albert Maysles, which began in 1962.

“My brother and I were always close,” says Albert Maysles, who was born in 1926 in Dorchester, Mass., the middle child of three (David Maysles, who died in 1987, was five years younger than Albert).

“We thought the best way to do something great would be to go to the heart of what life is about, which is human behavior, so David and I studied psychology in school,” he says. “Then in 1955 I went to Russia with a movie camera that CBS had lent me, and I made my first film--’Psychiatry in Russia’--in the psychiatric hospital there.

“At the time, David was in the Army, where he met the nephew of the photographer Milton Greene. When David got out of the Army, Greene was co-producing two films with Laurence Olivier--’The Prince and the Showgirl’ and ‘Bus Stop’--and he hired David to be his assistant, so that was David’s introduction to filmmaking.”

The pair’s unique approach to documentary filmmaking--which they dubbed “direct cinema”--began to coalesce in 1959, when Albert Maysles hooked up with pioneering documentarians Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock.

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“That association launched my career,” recalls Maysles, who collaborated with those filmmakers on the documentary “Primary,” which followed the bid for the 1960 Democratic Party’s nomination between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

“Robert Drew developed a camera that ran for 10 minutes and didn’t make noise, so you could put it on your shoulder and go anywhere, and that supported what we wanted to do, which was to film life as it is, with nothing edited out and nothing enhanced.”

Maysles’ first collaboration with his brother, a documentary on producer Joseph Levine titled “Showman,” was shot after he left Drew & Associates in 1962, and completed in 1963. The brothers’ next film, “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit,” fell into their laps the same year, when they got a call from Granada television inviting them to film the Beatles, who were arriving in New York in two hours. The following year the pair had another brush with major star power when United Artists hired them to film Marlon Brando’s promotional tour for the 1965 film “Morituri.”

“As we were filming we realized Brando was giving something entirely different from a promotional pitch, so we cut the footage into a film called ‘Meet Marlon Brando,’ ” says Maysles of this riveting record of a Brando in full command of his gifts.

In the course of making their next film, “A Visit With Truman Capote,” the brothers stumbled across the subject matter for the film Albert Maysles regards as their best work.

“After we finished the film with Truman, David had lunch with Joe Fox, who was Capote’s editor at Random House, and Fox suggested we do a film on door-to-door salesmen. So we found four guys

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selling Bibles door to door in New England and started filming them,” says Maysles of the genesis of their 1968 film, “Salesman.”

Though Maysles believes “Salesman” is their best film, their most widely seen film is probably “Gimme Shelter.” A chronicle of a 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, “Gimme Shelter” includes footage of a Hells Angel, one of the group of bikers that had been put in charge of security, stabbing a concert-goer to death. In retrospect, this diabolical bacchanal seems to mark the moment when the utopian ‘60s began dissolving into darkness--and the brothers captured exactly that in this terrifying film.

“You get so caught up in what you’re doing that you don’t realize the danger, and we weren’t as frightened as we should’ve been,” recalls Maysles of being at the center of that hurricane.

Their next film, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1973, was on the artist Christo’s “Valley Curtain.” “Grey Gardens” occupied them until 1976. Then came two more films on Christo, and a pair of films on classical music. The partnership then ended with David Maysles’ death from a stroke.

“After David’s death Susan Froemke took on David’s role and she’s a fabulous partner,” says Maysles. The filmmaker now lives in Manhattan with his wife, Gillian Walker, a family therapist. He has made documentaries about pianist Vladimir Horowitz, singer Jessye Norman, abortion, the hospice movement, and the building of the Getty Museum over the past decade.

“For the Getty film we went back and filmed every year for 12 years,” says Maysles of “Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center,” which aired on HBO in December.

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Maysles is now working with his team on a film about a black family in the Mississippi Delta.

“So many issues relevant to our lives surface in this film: education, the terrible pattern of men abandoning their families, welfare--they’re all part of this story,” says Maysles.

“Margaret Mead once said that the most important thing in the world was for people to find a common basis for understanding. Being an independent filmmaker, especially a documentarian, you’ve gotta be angry at the system, but I’ve never wanted to make films that were judgmental, and I distrust films where it’s obvious the filmmaker was out to get somebody. The most essential thing in this, or any, endeavor is empathy.”

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