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An elderly mother and middle-aged daughter live, Miss Havisham-like, in a rotting wedding cake of a mansion in East Hampton, on Long Island. To go with the 28 rooms, ocean view, and beach access, there are holes in the walls and raccoons in the attic. Edie Beale, the daughter, feeds them Wonder Bread. Why not? It's splendidly theatrical, as is her eating ice cream with a knife. Edie, a frustrated dancer, and her mother, Edith, a frustrated singer, are nothing if not theatrical.

Edith and Edie teeter between being delightful eccentrics and horrifying grotesques. If they seem like ought-to-be Tennessee Williams heroines, only more so, that's because they are. And if their speech sounds like Jackie Kennedy's, that's because Edith is her aunt and Edie her cousin. Truly, there is no looniness like looniness with lineage.


It's easy to see why "Grey Gardens," the 1975 documentary about the Beales that the legendary Albert and David Maysles codirected with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, subsequently inspired a Tony-winning musical and an HBO film. The documentary runs Friday through Monday at the Brattle Theatre. Nothing can top the real thing, though. Edith and Edie are like a toxic vaudeville team, joined not just by blood but affinity. They're three parts folie a deux to two parts shtick.

Edith sings "Tea for Two." Edie recites Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and does the occasional dance routine. They listen to a Norman Vincent Peale sermon on the radio (he sounds crazier than they do). They flirt with the Maysles duo, whom we occasionally glimpse, though not as much as they flirt with the camera. The brothers' patent affection for the Beales precludes any sense of exploitation.

"I threw the bull around, as they say," Edith remarks of her younger self. She still does, and Edie makes two. Mother and daughter are stars, and they know it. Anyone who's seen "Grey Gardens" knows it, too.


More documentary coverage:

Building a documentary one brick at a time

Documania: Diego Ongaro is interested in the fact-fiction fence

Albert Maysles's 'Iris' celebrates fashion icon Iris Apfel

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.