When David and Albert Maysles decided to follow up their rock & roll death-trip vérité masterpiece Gimme Shelter (1970) with Grey Gardens (1976), a film that caught Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ aunt and cousin living in secret squalor in a decrepit, raccoon-infested mansion in East Hampton, N.Y., the filmmakers must have known they were on to something big: the death rattle of the old American aristocracy. Grey Gardens, with its mother-and-daughter eccentrics entwined for life by the clannish devotion of their hatred and love, was like The Glass Menagerie restaged by Andy Warhol. The Maysleses didn’t just let the Kennedy family skeletons out of the closet. They got those skeletons to dance.
Even so, few might have guessed that ”Little” Edith Beale, the younger and more colorfully unhinged of the two, would end up such a floridly revered camp cult sensation. In the years since Grey Gardens was first shown, Little Edie’s presence in that film (she died in 2002) has made her the madhouse Judy Garland of the fallen WASP elite. She has spawned impersonators and fashion trends, and Grey Gardens has even been turned into a musical. So why shouldn’t there be a sequel?
Now there is one, sort of. The Beales of Grey Gardens is 90 minutes of outtakes from the original film, lovingly assembled by Albert Maysles. It lacks the first movie’s cohesiveness, but Grey Gardens was never a model of structure; it was more a reality show before its time, and The Beales of Grey Gardens brings us closer to the mysteries at its heart. The East End light is even more gorgeous than before, as Little Edie, her scarves wrapped so tightly around her head they look as if they’re holding it in place, with that affectless Brahmin lilt that makes her sound like she’s communing with aliens, turns to the camera to sing ”You Oughta Be in Pictures,” cooing her sadness and delusion like a beautifully cracked baby doll.