You might want to protest that a sparkling new print of Grey Gardens violates the point of Grey Gardens. But if you feel strongly about it — or if you’ve never had the chance to witness the Fall of the House of Beale on a big screen — there’s no excuse to miss the restoration of Albert and David Maysles’s 1976 study of spirited decrepitude. Shot on 16mm, and still grainy, the story of the two generations of Ediths swanning and dancing about their crumbling mansion remains elusive and dreamlike, no matter how its corners have been brightened. In those corners, of course, is filth, now more sharply detailed than ever before.
The chance to apprehend the precise blackness of the stains on Big Edith’s mattress is no revelation, of course, and the new clarity might come at a cost: Those smears of shadow no longer seem as if they might teem with kittens and raccoons. But Grey Gardens the film and Grey Gardens the East Hampton home both feel sunnier, now, a little more welcoming, as do the lives of the women who haunt them. The Maysleses’ verite doc has always played as tragedy, comedy, horror, character study, and crackpot cabaret show, all at the same time, but this restoration — from the Criterion folks, in celebration of the doc’s 40th anniversary — feels as if it opens the blinds and sprays some Febreze, so that it now lists just a touch more toward cheeriness.
The film remains richly detailed and boundlessly evocative, even at its most claustrophobic. Watching it, feasting on its many small revelations, you might feel like one of those raccoons that snack upon the Wonder Bread that Edie the Younger dumps in the estate’s attic — what exactly is it that we scavenge from the lives of the Ediths? There’s inspiration to be found in them, of course: As the Hamptons crowd shuddered, and the tabloids giggled, this once well-off duo, abandoned by the men in Big Edith’s life, survived together in codependent defiance, insistent on their dignity and worth even when infested with fleas. The younger Edie, 56 and striking at the time of the Maysleses’ five-week shoot, lavishes herself in headscarves and fishnets, displaying the poised assurance of her debutante youth, when she modeled, pursued a career in dance, and was nicknamed “Body Beautiful Beale.” The film’s saddest moments, for many viewers, come when she and Edith, her mother, bicker over whether Edie ever might have married — especially piercing is the reference to some married man in her life just before Edie left Manhattan to take care of Edith at Grey Gardens. That was some two decades before the film, and we can only imagine what Edie’s life might have been like outside. But the Maysleses demonstrate that her days as an itchy shut-in — and, in the eyes of the health department, a public nuisance — were distinguished by love and high spirits and many idle hours soaking up that Hamptons sun. Even with the fleabites, that’s better than many of us get. Better still, when Edie hoofs it for the Maysleses, or when she suggests to Edith that a helpful young man from the neighborhood must have designs on her, she reveals that she held to something poverty so often snatches away: hope. It’s appropriate, then, that this print finally lets some light in.