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'Beales' brings perspective to cult classic

``Grey Gardens" mania appears to be nearing its peak. Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore are poised to play the mother-daughter eccentrics in a Hollywood movie, and the off-Broadway musical sensation, with Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, is Broadway-bound. Wisely, the Brattle Theatre jumps the gun this weekend with a double feature of the Maysles brothers' 1975 classic cult documentary that started it all, and a separate collection of scenes (we won't call them outtakes) that didn't make the original picture's final cut.

Titled ``The Beales of Grey Gardens," the newer movie is really a sweet appetizer for the more fascinating experience of ``Grey Gardens" itself. In the early 1970s, Albert and David Maysles paid a visit to Edith Beale and her 56-year-old live-at-home daughter, also named Edith. The Beales were close relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and the news that Suffolk County was threatening to take action against the squalid conditions of their East Hampton manse provoked the former first lady to encourage them to get the place cleaned up.

Sensing a gentler notoriety in the air, the Maysles drop in on the Beales. (Only a few years before, they had returned from capturing the hells of Altamont for ``Gimme Shelter.") In high Tennessee Williams fashion, the brothers introduce themselves as gentleman callers, inspiring childless, never-married Little Edie, accordingly, to catch a fit of the vapors. Her tizzy doesn't dissipate for the duration of her time under the filmmakers' watch. And watch they do, capturing delirium and tantrums. The Edies have cacophonous fights over old records and old photos, stuck forever in some bygone era. Time probably froze when Mr. Beale, the daughter's father, gave Big Edie a ``Mexican divorce." ``It's very difficult to keep the line between the present and the past," Little Edie memorably confesses.

There's something terrible and tragic about these women and their lives. But because they seem to fit so comfortably within so much great English and Southern gothic literature, they also seem painfully familiar: nightmare versions of characters in Jane Austen, say, living in Dickensian filth (those poor cats!) with Faulknerian psychological tortures. What also keeps the film from being mere proto-reality television is its deceptive sense of duality. Ostensibly, ``Grey Gardens" is about the Beales, but in so many ways it's about the two filmmakers hanging out with them. More than once they seem to cross an uncomfortable line into exploitation. And the transgression is compelling.

By comparison, ``The Beales of Grey Gardens" is an afterthought. Pulled together by Albert Maysles (David died in 1987), it's a showcase for Little Edie and the fashion icon she's become almost 30 years later. Indeed, the film culminates in a pretty montage of her best homemade outfits: all manners of scarves to cover her hairless head, improvised skirts and maillots. The brothers' camera, in this bunch of scenes, does catch her as she's not often, or at least not believably, glimpsed in ``Grey Gardens" proper: behaving coquettishly. It's unclear whether she thinks she's found fame or a husband. But the Maysles seem all too pleased to keep her guessing.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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