While one can easily imagine Little Edie Beale's breathless excitement at being portrayed, in HBO's recent update of "Grey Gardens," by Drew Barrymore -- a Barrymore, by God! -- it is harder to imagine a time when the original version of "Grey Gardens" was, in a jarring word, demonized.
But in Joe McElhaney's "Albert Maysles," a credit-by-credit examination of the filmmaker who, along with his brother David, captured Little Edie and her let-it-all-hang-out mother in their decaying East Hampton habitat for the 1976 documentary, one is reminded of the early scoldings from critics, such as the New York Times' Richard Eder, who rebuked the depiction of Big Edie's "old sagging flesh."
The Edies, it seems, weren't the only ones out of step with their times.
As McElhaney, a Hunter College associate professor and author of books about Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli and others, makes clear, the Maysles brothers and their signature works, including the 1970 Rolling Stones-Altamont artifact, "Gimme Shelter," tended to be attacked more than applauded back in the day. Their dedication to direct cinema -- the unadorned, un-narrated life that just so happened to take place in front of Albert Maysles' always-running camera -- was more reviled than revered.
"How does one review this picture?" the New Yorker's Pauline Kael asked in her opening argument against "Gimme Shelter." "It's like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy's assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald's murder."
To call the rest of the Kael review scathing is to call Little Edie a touch eccentric. Denouncing the movie as a "cinema-verite sham," Kael goes on to blame the Maysles brothers for setting (and literally lighting) the stage for the stabbing death of 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter.
Oh well, a wrung-out reader might sigh, at least Kael didn't compare the Maysles to the Nazis. But wait. She did, comparing these sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to Hitler favorite Leni Riefenstahl.
Kael, it's worth noting, wasn't the only person raising questions. Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer and documentary director who shot some apparently unused footage for the brothers' 1968 documentary "Salesman," suggested that the Maysleses goosed scenes on that film. In an interview with McElhaney, Albert doesn't outright refute Wexler but adds that "it's hard to think of too many moments where 'we've gone astray.' "
Yet in "Albert Maysles" -- which is named for only one of the Maysles brothers because, McElhaney argues, of the singular importance of Albert's imagery (David, who died in 1987, did the sound and most of the interviewing) -- allegations of what took place off-camera are ultimately less interesting than the fact that they came up at all.
Kael's review and those by other Maysles critics, McElhaney writes in the book's most compelling section, "suggested not only that these were bad films but that they were bad for you." A not unpopular opinion, the author tells us, was that the brothers made films that audiences "were not meant to see."
Indeed, commissioned films about producer David Merrick and Marlon Brando were withheld from general release by their apparently displeased subjects, while another work-for-hire film on the Beatles has never been seen as the Maysles brothers and their team originally conceived it. And yet, thanks to YouTube, reality TV, celebrity sex tapes and amateur porn, audiences today see all sorts of things they aren't meant to see. Little Edie's safety-pinned skirt-and-pantyhose get-up? Big Edie's rotted-out mattress? Still avant-garde and still disgusting, yes, but nothing compared to a Google search result for, say, "cat sex."
If the Maysles brothers told their stories with more skill than those in your average feline video, their approach could also be maddening. Anyone who wants to know what's under Little Edie's scarves would be advised to check out the HBO docudrama and not the original documentary, which only revealed what happened to take place on the days Albert and David were around.
McElhaney's biography runs like a classic Maysles brother film, sticking to the facts, letting personal back story slip in here and there, and presenting an end-of-the-book Q&A as a sort of DVD commentary track. (Anyone who wants information on the Pepsi Challenge commercials the Maysleses helped produce would be advised to look elsewhere, and good luck to you -- McElhaney mentions them only in passing, and Internet searches turn up little.)
In the end, "Albert Maysles," while about far more than "Grey Gardens," may best be read as an entry in the ever-growing library of books about that not-to-be-ignored film.
The times, it seems, have caught up with the Edies. And the brothers Maysles.
Ryan is the author of "Former Child Stars." She is co-writing a book about Christmas in the 1970s.