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In a career that’s spanned nearly five decades, Albert Maysles (and his brother David, who died in 1987) has taken on everyone from Bible salesmen to The Beatles to Christo and Jean-Claude. But it’s the Maysles’ documentary “Grey Gardens” that’s endured above all else. It’s been the basis of a Broadway musical and inspired as many fashion designers as Halston and Schiaparelli combined. On Saturday, a bio-film on Jackie Onassis’ quirky cousins (and the infamous documentary they appeared in) comes to HBO. WWD spoke to the 82-year-old Maysles.
WWD: So here we are with yet another chapter in the “Grey Gardens” saga. Are you surprised it’s gone on this long?
Albert Maysles: Yeah, I think anyone would be. The musical, the HBO film, there have been a couple of books already. My two daughters just finished a book on it.
This story first appeared in the April 17, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: What did you think of the HBO film?
A.M.: I thought it was good. I’m not an expert on fiction. I make documentaries and a good deal of the film takes place before that. But the stuff that was contemporary with the filming was accurate.
WWD: There’s a hilarious moment in the HBO movie where you and your brother are putting on flea repellent.
A.M.: We sprayed ourselves against the fleas, and we put on anklets to protect us from them. All of which worked well because we never got flea bites. But they were so bad that when I was filming Edie on the porch, she was wearing a very short skirt and I noticed that her legs were totally covered in bites.
WWD: Do you think things might have been different for the Beales if antidepressants and antianxiety drugs had really been on the market back then?
A.M.: I don’t think they needed that. I get alarmed every time I see in the press that they’re mad or crazy. There have been accusations of exploitation [on our part]. If you look up the obituary for Mrs. Beale, it says the two women were the ‘targets’ of our film. I think that was unfair to them and to us. We didn’t want to do any damage to them. We really liked them and dealt with them in a very respectful fashion. Some of the press don’t understand that it’s a good thing for people to open their hearts and minds to a camera person. And it’s also important to recognize that when somebody opens their heart to a camera, it’s a sign of good health.
WWD: Have you seen reality shows? You think those people are all healthy?
A.M.: Well, that’s not real. So much of that is staged. What is it, “The Osbournes”? I sat and watched some of that and it was disgusting. The overuse of profanity is just revolting. It’s time that we put into the media people and events that illuminate our own experience through theirs. When you see “Grey Gardens” there’s something to be learned from that. In spite of managing to live on very little income, they’re survivors and there’s love there between the two of them, and a lot of talent. I’ve spoken to people who know good voices and they say Edith could very well have been a professional singer. And the fashion world has been so excited by Edie’s fashionable dresses.
WWD: But 40-something cats in a house and a couple dozen raccoons? Painting your nails green is eccentric. This is…
A.M: It’s eccentric.
WWD: No more than that?
A.M.: They didn’t cut their grass either. That’s kind of crazy, in view of the fact that their neighbors were doing that.
WWD: Look, one of the things the new movie suggests is that you can’t exploit someone who wants to be exploited. And they wanted to make the movie. But that doesn’t make them not crazy.
A.M.: Mmmm. Hmmm. Well, my first profession was in psychology.
WWD: Yes. You were a psychology professor at Boston University.
A.M.: Right. And I worked at a mental hospital. So I know a little. I wouldn’t call them crazy. Walter Goodman wrote an article in The New York Times, a critique of the film. He was trying to protect them from the camera, so to speak, by saying, “Why are they showing all this flabby flesh?” Obviously he had a problem with age. Not their problem. His. And Edie wrote a wonderful letter to answer the piece but it wasn’t published. So I called the editor and asked them why not. And they said, “She’s schizophrenic.” That’s crazy. That’s crazy. She was very much in touch with the real world. So was her mother. Maybe more so than most people. She was on to the shenanigans of the Republican Party way before the rest of us.