In Our Opinion

GREY GARDENS (The Musical)

By • Dec 15th, 2006 •

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The musical Grey Gardens, which moved from off-Broadway to the Walter Kerr Theatre with its original cast, Christine Ebersole and Mary-Louise Wilson, opened to very good reviews on November 2.

Wait. The musical?

Yes, the musical. Just one arm of what appears to a media blitz inspired by the legendary documentary of 1972 directed by the Maysles Brothers, the famed documentary filmmaking team. Another GG documentary by Al Maysles (well his company really; his brother David died not too long ago) was screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September. The Beales of Grey Gardens was fashioned from outtakes from the original movie, along with some early Maysles documentary work in Russia, at the time forbidden territory.

Grey Gardens, for the few un-initiates, or those too young to know better, is the award-winning and highly influential documentary of the story of the recluses–some say castoffs–of the Bouvier (as in Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) clan. Little Edie and Big Edie lived in a rundown and cat-infested East Hampton house, subsequently purchased and then rented out by Washington Post editor Ben Bradley and Sally Quinn. The Edies, both no longer with us, are still creating a scandal of sorts about nonfunctional women whose families—rich in this case—have simply walked away from them. As Maysles told me when I interviewed him in his working studio on West 54th Street, Jackie O. (a niece of the elder Edie) said to his brother David when accidentally running into him on an airline, “I’ll have to sneak into Grey Gardens sometime.” That is, so the family wouldn’t know she went to see it.

Kennedy-Onassis will be portrayed in a small role in the 2007 film, Grey Gardens, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Yes, another offshoot. Will it never end? Al Maysles clearly doesn’t want it to, though he was not involved in the upcoming film, written and directed by Michael Suscy. Maysles said he liked the script, which he was given the courtesy of approving, and that he is pleased with the casting.

Why all the GG stuff? Why now?

Maysles twinkles, “I just believe in coincidences, don’t you?” disavowing any intentional marketing. Well, when you put it like that. Though he is a shrewd enough businessman, worrying that this reporter won’t get the proper (Criterion) DVD with extra information about one of his films. And he has a huge venture planned. “I just sold my apartment at the Dakota where I’ve lived for thirty years, and we bought four buildings in Harlem. One of them, with a cafeteria attached to it, will be devoted to showing quality movies to people in the community.”

Of the current exciting up tick in documentaries, whether purely fact-based or fiction-influenced, Maysles decides, “Well, what’s the phrase? It’s an idea whose time has come.” Who can’t think of a few filmmakers who would turn bitter at being ahead of their time?

Indeed, his penthouse documentary factory on West 54th is a spot where many women filmmakers such as Barbara Kopple and Ellen Hovde learned and honed their craft, years before it was trendy to be aware of the advancement of “women in film.” When this is mentioned to Maysles, he just nods, yes, he did use a lot of women early on. Not dwelling on the compliment, he simply observes that his mother was a strong civil libertarian.

Modest in some ways, and yet a careerist in others, the 80 year old minces no words. Al has a few choice ones about Michael Moore, who has been screening advance clips of his new if not yet completed Sicko, his film about the U.S. healthcare industry: “He takes something you and I might agree with, but he pushes so hard that he hurts his own case. I think sometimes point of view works against the filmmaker. For instance, I think the son pushes too hard in Don’t Forget To Tell Them Your Name. But of course Haskell Wexler [the father in the film, and the highly regarded cinematographer] is a friend of mine.

“Maybe I could be criticized for not having a point of view. Like in Gimme Shelter.
That is, was it an accidental killing or a murder? The movie doesn’t make it clear. What was the guy doing with the gun?

“Too, almost anybody else making Grey Gardens would have placed the blame on either the mother or the daughter. But I didn’t do that. It’s less intrusive. I prefer the term direct cinema, rather than cinema verite.”

Maysles agrees with most that a budding filmmaker, as he says, “…should definitely be in New York City. If you want something on HBO, for example. Sources for money are here. Public relations is here. The press is here. For documentary you’re better off in New York.

“What I regret,” Al says, “is that the movement has not taken on the character of direct cinema. So much of what is out there now is propaganda. A filmmaker’s point of view rather than an open-ended investigation. Even some of the better ones won’t accept the responsibility for telling the full truth. They blame the photographer, the editing. But if it’s truly a documentary, then it should be a work of nonfiction.”

“For example, the memoir that Oprah Winfey got in trouble with. But there isn’t a ruckus over inaccuracies in documentary films such as Michael Moore’s.”

I loved hearing that the generous and genteel Al is still angry at the inaccuracies of a Pauline Kael review of Gimme Shelter. “I wrote Mr. Shawn (the then New Yorker editor) to let him know but I got nowhere with it. That was in the days before careful fact-checking. Her piece was a total fabrication.

“She made her lies sound like brilliant observations. Should have been ‘Pauline Kael – what a goddam liar.’”

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