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The Secret of Grey Gardens: A Brilliant Documentary Becomes Great Theater

Written by: Russell Davidson, CC2K Sports Editor

ImageIn continuing with my “Documentaries You Must Watch” series, I’d planned to review/tout the Maysles’ Brothers 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, the unforgettable story of Little Edie Beale and her mother, Big Edie, aunt and cousin of the world-famous Jackie O., and their lives together in a deteriorating East Hampton mansion. 

Then, coincidentally, I heard of a play After the Garden, based on a performance Little Edie (now dead) gave in NYC in 1978, a cabaret bit, a little song, a little dance, a lot of Edie. This play was written by Gerald Duval, a guy who actually knew Edie back then, and who was intimately involved in this short-lived nightclub engagement. I had to see it, to compare it to the film, to get another side of the subject matter. So see it I did.

Let’s start with the film. The Maysles Brothers, Al and David, were pretty well known (Gimme Shelter, Salesman, etc.) when Jackie O. asked them to film her and her family, including her cousin and aunt, the Beales. Right away the Maysles saw that the movie had to be about the Beales. They were odd, slightly nuts, living in a big house in the Hamptons, called Grey Gardens. Jackie O and the rest of them just weren’t as interesting.

So the Maysles moved in with Big and Little Edie for months. The world they uncovered has to be seen to be believed. Existing in their own secluded reality, the two women bicker, sing, read, dance, and talk (and talk and talk) about the old days when THEY were aristocracy; the days before they retreated into Grey Gardens. There are money problems, raccoon problems, vegetation-gone-wild problems, dilapidation problems. Their house is falling apart, yet they continue on in what on the surface seems a seriously unhealthy co-dependent relationship.

So what makes this movie interesting, not dull? What makes it uplifting, not a downer? There is without question a fascination for what is different, what is strange, what is out of out normal sphere of living, and the Beales’ story is just that. Here are two women who were the cream of the crop, and now, in “Grey Gardens,” we see their regrets, their frustrations, their almost bemused bewilderment at where they’ve landed. But they don’t wallow in their situation, complaining. This is a relationship based on a deep love, and even with all their problems, this shines through. The affection they have for each other is what drives the film and keeps it from being exploitive or maudlin. .

The Maysles’ do their usual outstanding job of capturing the quiet, touching moments as well as the loud, cringe-inducing ones. It’s a film that’s surprisingly compelling, the mother-daughter stuff, the fall-from-great-heights stuff, the weirdness, the sadness, the strange beauty of it all.  And I haven’t even mentioned Little Edie’s outfits! 

So I will here. She had a sense of style, Little Edie did. Now, as to whether it’s successful, well, hard to call.  It’s a signature look, let’s just say that. And it’s a look Jeffrey Johnson pulls off.

He’s the show, the actor portraying Little Edie Beale in the entertaining one-man stage production of After The Garden, Edith Beale Live at Reno Sweeney. Based on a week of shows the real Little Edie put on in 1978 at the Reno Sweeney, three years after the Maysles’ doc came out and soon after her mother died, it was a show, it was Edie, doing her thing.

She needed the money to maintain Grey Gardens, and the reenactment, written by Gerald Duval, the actual guy who put on the ORIGINAL Reno Sweeney performances, allows us new insight into Edie and her world. Lots of new tidbits, like did you know Little Edie was proposed to by a Rockefeller, a Getty (world’s richest man, at the time), Joe Kennedy, who was being groomed to be President before he was killed in the war, and even Howard Hughes himself? She turned them all down. Now that’s inscrutable.

Jeffrey Johnson does a tremendous job of sounding and acting like Little Edie, the mannerisms, the cadence in the speech, the singing, and I left thinking I got another side of Little Edie, not just the one from Grey Gardens. I know it’s not her up there, but I’m transported, I can believe it’s her, and that’s rewarding. So Little Edie then becomes not so cartoonish, not so much a caricature of some nutty cat lady, but an actual person in 3-D. After The Garden fleshes her out, in every sense. It’s well-paced and enjoyable, and any fan of the documentary would really go for this. Experience both and get a well-rounded portrait of a classic American eccentric.

(“After The Garden” is being performed in Washington DC at Miss Pixie’s Backroom Palace, 1626 14th st., NW – runs from March 5-29th, shows Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays)

p.s. You want even MORE of the Beales’? Grey Gardens the musical played on Broadway and is now heading to London, and HBO has a non-musical movie based on the documentary coming out soon, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore… wonders how Edie (Big and Little) would feel about all this attention…..