“You know, they’ll get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday,” we hear an unknown voice declare as the Maysles brother’s camera goes from the dilapidated interior of their subject’s home to the lush, manicured estates of their neighbors in East Hampton. The voice, we find, belongs to Edith “Little Edie” Beale, a former socialite and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who now resides with her mother, Edith “Big Edie” Beale, in the once glorious and now decaying grounds known as, “Grey Gardens.”
40 years ago, filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles released what would be widely considered a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. Their film Grey Gardens now enjoys a spot on both the Criterion Collection and in the Library of Congress. Recently, the remaining brother of the duo, Albert, passed away at the age of 88. The two brothers were best known to me for their famous Rolling Stones Documentary Gimme Shelter. I’d heard of Grey Gardens, but never actually saw it, so I jumped at the chance to watch it in theaters, when FilmForum announced they would be screening it for a limited time following the death of Albert.
You are immediately thrown, almost dizzied, by the conditions that 82-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale, a once respected concert singer, and her 56-year-old-daughter of the same name, who in her youth modeled and aspired to be a professional dancer, are living in. The estate known as “Grey Gardens,” which once stood proudly as a pinnacle of American wealth and social status, now lies as the crumbling husk of its once exceptional past.
You soon find yourself ready to dismiss them as lunatics, women who have lost their minds after being shut in for far too long — but that would be a mistake. These women are colorful, smart, witty, creative, talented, and somehow living exactly as they like, despite what an outsider might think. You listen as “Big Edie” explains her hate of girdles — “I haven’t worn a girdle since I was twelve years old” — and you can’t help being charmed.
It’s interesting to know that the brothers did not set out to make Grey Gardens; they were initially contacted by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwell, cousins of “Little Edie” and the nieces of “Big Edie,” to do a film on their family. After being introduced to this mother and daughter pair, it was clear they would concentrate on these two anomalies instead of their original plans.
Overgrown trees and bushes have slowly swallowed Grey Gardens, a once carefully manicured property. We follow “Little Edie” as she leads the filmmakers through branch-strewn paths and into her mother’s room, who waits for us, lying in bed, where she entertains us with a lovely rendition of “Tea for Two.”
The interior is crumbling: cats, fleas, and raccoons roam freely. One of the funniest, and somewhat dark, scenes of the film features “Little Edie” walking up to the attic and emptying an entire loaf of Wonderbread and a box of dry cat food for the houses raccoons.
The home is filthy. The floors are lined with dirt, dust, and cat shit. The walls are covered in dust and grime, some with large holes (which we are told are caused by the raccoons). “Big Edie” spends much of the film sitting in her bed, with flies buzzing about her. At one point, she boils corn, right from her bedside, with a hot plate.
Again, you might find yourself feeling bad for them or just squeamish that anyone lives that way, but you shouldn’t. Despite the urge to simply dismiss the two as “crazies,” they are not. They are happy. Yes, they are codependent but they’re okay with that. They sing together daily, dance, argue, forgive, regret, and somehow always wind up smiling.
They sit together, in what can rightly be called filth, eating liver pâté, one content with her life, and one dreaming of escaping back to New York City, even if she had to live on “10th Avenue.” Does “Little Edie” regret having to put her life on hold to move back to “Grey Gardens” to take care of her sick mother? No. As she herself puts it, “The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility.”
So, do not feel pity for these two ladies: they don’t need it (they’re dead). Instead, relish in the greatness of these two wonderfully engaging, eccentrics, two rare personalities whose existence might have long been forgotten if not for this absolute masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. As “Little Edie” herself puts it in her wonderfully Kennedy-esque accent, “But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character, and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
You can find the film in its entirety here.
Review by Timothy White. You can follow him on Twitter @TipToTheHip.