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In 1998, I interviewed Little Edie Beale, the surviving star of 1976’s Grey Gardens, one of the Maysles brothers’ numerous masterworks (Gimme Shelter, Meet Marlon Brando, and With Love from Truman are equal in technical and emotional innovation). Miss Beale, speaking by telephone from her home somewhere in Florida, said she spent her days swimming and occasionally seeing friends. She was still attiring herself in a singular manner (her self-described “costumes” are the visual corollary of her extraordinary speech), living as she had always lived: as an independent woman whose thoughts and actions were infused—not to say suffused—by the presence of her late mother, Big Edie Beale. Little Edie had spent most of her adult life with her mother; now she parted the warm, salty waves surrounding her Florida home alone.
In Miss Beale’s speech, one heard the Social Register that had excised the Beales from its pages long ago: long a’s, a certain formality in addressing her interlocutor. There was also, in her voice, an impatience with the demands of being ladylike. I recall, during the interview, being at a loss as to what I could or should ask Miss Beale. One felt—understandably—that one intimately knew her and her mother from the Maysles film. At any rate, Miss Beale had agreed to talk to me largely because Albert Maysles had asked her to do so; the piece was to appear sometime around the theatrical rerelease of the documentary film she had starred in some twenty years before. During our talk, I asked Miss Beale several questions; they betrayed the awkward directness of a fan. I recall asking her if she liked women. “No!” she said emphatically. And, giggling softly, she added: “Women want the same things I want.” For Miss Beale, the world was her mother and therefore a mirror: she may not “like” other women, but she was them; other women were not distinguishable from her mother—or herself.
Such singularity of being is rare. It is also rare that it should be recorded so beautifully and with such grace, since it is not unusual for artists to feel diminished by subjects they cannot invent, especially real-life characters whose lives exceed anyone’s wildest imaginings. Odd to say, but this resentment can be especially true of documentary filmmakers, the weak ones at least, who too often compete with their subjects, insisting that their intrepid journalistic eye is the story we should be engaged by, not the people they’re “covering.” Grey Gardens is evidence of Albert and David Maysles’s unique brilliance as portraitists, actively engaged by subjects who do not so much sit for them (the Beales have too much energy, wit, and imagination to be passive subjects) as help them shape the film by exposing their emotional trajectories. That is the film’s ostensible narrative. Its haunting subtext is this: the truth is best presented through metaphor. The Beales are themselves, born into a particular class at a particular time. But they are also the selves they’ve created: a singer, a dancer, whose florid self-presentation cannot be eclipsed by hard times, bad times—so-called real life. Certainly the Maysleses are interested in recording the Beales’ very real life—the ruined house crawling with cats and fleas, the paper bird in the rusty gilded cage, the mother and daughter quarreling—but those are the film’s most superficial elements. What draws the viewer in are the stories around what we cannot see: Miss Beale lamenting the loss of a scarf. The suitors turned away. Mrs. Beale’s infatuation with a man whose minor musical talent is better remembered than heard. Money spent. The dream of New York on summer nights filled with jackhammers and the moon. Regrets and recriminations: the language of lovers, the fabric of family life. The filmmakers’ interest in the ephemeral, the passing of time in a sea of leaves, tells us that masks are all we have: people would not know who they were or what to say without them. Time is cruel, but we can overcome it a bit by insisting on self-expression (at any cost, since it generally does cost something: a conventional life and the conventional wisdom that goes with it).
The Maysleses’ deeply felt approach to these extraordinary women makes most other documentaries by their peers seem foolish, an embarrassment disguised as the truth. As embarrassing as asking Miss Beale impertinent questions on the telephone for journalism’s sake. What was there for her to say? The Maysleses had provided her and her mother with a platform where they spoke and sang and shouted and saw so memorably and intimately, so long ago.
Hilton Als is a staff writer at the New Yorker. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2001 DVD release of Grey Gardens.