3 stars (out of four)
Watching the two Maysles brothers documentaries about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie Beale-- the 1976 classic "Grey Gardens" and its 2006 sequel "The Beales of Grey Gardens"--is a bit like wandering into a slice of life that suddenly turns into a Tennessee Williams play, with upper-class Eastern accents replacing the Southern ones.
The films, which play together at the Music Box starting Friday, make an odd, wondrously nutty double feature--both movies set in the crumbling Beale mansion in East Hampton, as recorded by directors Albert and David Maysles (helped on "Grey Gardens" by director-editors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer). Footage from their '70s' shoots was used for both pictures.
The Beales had become notorious in the New York press when the local community tried to evict them because of the ruin into which their mansion had fallen: holes in the walls, waste on the floors and raccoons and opossums mingling with the Beales' eight-cat menagerie. The ladies were rescued by their family, and the Maysleses eventually arrived to immortalize them.
As we see them here, the Beales--mother and daughter, Big Edie and Little Edie--are Williams people to the core. (So are some of the supporting characters, including young handyman Jerry Torre.) Like the great playwright's moving gallery of grotesques, bullies, divas and lost souls, the Beales are two incredible, strangely attractive and eloquent characters who seem to have fallen from the grace of their old days into the purgatory of their present.
Sunk in illusions and fantasies, far from the glorious past of the Bouvier family (Big Edie was Jackie Kennedy's paternal aunt), they bicker, sing pop love songs and live out a dream of elegance that is constantly contradicted by the mess and sadness around them.
In the films, Big Edie is a snappish, brusque-seeming lady who was once a talented singer and now seems to reside mostly in bed. Little Edie was a beauty in her youth but abandoned hopes for an acting-entertaining career in New York; she has spent most of her life with her mother. Occasionally they sing. But though Big Edie remembers the words and tunes, Little Edie often wanders off them. At one point, she wrongly sings and re-sings the lyrics to Victor Young's "Around the World in 80 Days" theme song until she drives you almost crazy.
Edie is also given to a bizarre, personal fashion style that consists of improvised skirts and constant high-style headwear covering her hair. (We never learn why.)
In fact, the two women are entertainers, and brilliant ones. But their life is their show--which is what the filmmakers cannily caught in "Grey Gardens" and is even more in evidence in the sequel.
"The Beales" doesn't seem at all like a film of "out takes" If anything, it's more unfettered and fascinating than "Grey Gardens." At one point in the second movie, a fire breaks out in the mansion, followed by hysteria. At another, Little Edie, while on camera, seems to be trying to seduce both Maysles brothers into a menage a trois. One wonders why more of this golden footage wasn't used for the first film--such as the opening of "Beales," with Little Edie rapturously but monotonously singing "You Oughta Be in Pictures" or the "Beales" closing shot of the Maysleses holding their film equipment as Edie walks away.
"Grey Gardens" became a cult film in the '70s, when mavericks and outsiders were the heroes and heroines and the Beales were valued for their alternative world and their priceless eccentricity. The sequel takes us back, heightening that eccentricity and deepening and broadening that world. In the interim, Big Edie (in 1977), Little Edie (2002) and David Maysles (1987) have died. But in cinema, in their true career and destiny, Big Edie and Little Edie are still together--and they still live and breathe and sometimes sing.
'The Beales of Grey Gardens'
"The Beales of Grey Gardens" 1:31. "Grey Gardens" 1:34. For both films: No MPAA rating. Parents cautioned for language and adult themes. Starts Friday at various times at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., 773-871-6604, www.musicboxtheatre.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun