One of the pleasures in writing this week about Doug Wright's new Broadway production was seeing for the first time the documentary that inspired it: Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles, the brothers who started making docs in 1955. With Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker and Robert Drew, they were pioneers in the art of non-fiction filmmaking; among their films are docs about the Beatles' first trip to the U.S., a young Marlon Brando doing press interviews and bible salesmen trying to unload their product. Perhaps their best known is the tragic classic Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones concert tour of 1969 and the disaster at Altamont, during which a fan was stabbed by Hell's Angels.
But Grey Gardens has inspired a cult following among those fascinated by the story of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, American aristocrats related to Jackie O. They ended up living in the family's derelict estate in East Hampton with 52 cats and no running water. When taking on the project, Wright initially was concerned that Al Maysles (David died in 1987) might disapprove of his taking the Beales' story to the stage and fictionalizing the first part of their lives. But he needn't have worried.
"There is, for me, only one standard for the musical Grey Gardens," says Al from his New York offices, "and that is, would the Edies like it?" His verdict? "They'd love it."
Fans of Grey Gardens will be thrilled to know that Maysles has a new film being released by Criterion on December 5 called The Beales of Grey Gardens; it screened here in August during the Dallas Video Festival, when Maysles came not only to present a documentary award named for him but also to teach a filmmaking class.
As the Maysles Films Web site promises: "Edited from hours and hours of footage shot between 1973 and 1976, The Beales captures 'Big' Edie and 'Little' Edie at their resplendent, dazzling and exasperating best--philosophizing on God, love and war amidst the disorder of their ramshackle East Hampton mansion, with a montage tribute to Little Edie's inimitable style and showstopping outfits." The film is a "love letter" to the two eccentric survivors who captured hearts around the world.
Seriously, get thee to New York immediately for a performance of Grey Gardens at Walter Kerr Theater; there you will see Ebersole playing both mother and daughter in what Ben Brantley, theater critic of The New York Times, called "possibly the greatest performance I have ever seen in a musical." Yes, the Edies would like that very, very much. --Glenna Whitley