The case can be made that 1975’s GREY GARDENS (1975) pioneered the current spate of reality shows invading our airwaves. Many, too, cite the film as the very first cinema-verite “hit”, popular with audiences and critics alike when it was made, popular to this day. Famed documentarians David and Albert Maysles capture a story that is purely camp, as they lovingly capture the grandiose ambitions, dreams and philosophies of the two women at the film’s core. Camp is that special brand of humorous theatricality, a style popular with the gay community (the movie is referred to by many as Gay Gardens and was adapted into a Tony award-winning musical). The Maysles get the comedy of their subjects, yet, they never make the Beales look ridiculous; they see in these failed women, as do the women themselves, a dignity, a hope that is palpable. The Maysles capture perfectly the Beales’ eccentricities, making Big Edie and Little Edie seem neither precious nor twee. This is an intimate story, told with gentle sensitivity. When there are broad strokes to be made, the Beales make them. Underneath what might have become derisiveness toward these ladies, the Maysles instead unearth symbols of a collapsed and resurrected America. Know that what you are seeing is not the sleazy Kardashians lolling around in sweats fretting over brother, Rob’s latest weight gain — GREY GARDENS takes on a depth and a pathos seldom found in today’s schlocky t.v. reality circuses. This is documentary exalted to a level of art. Both this film and PBS’ series, An American Family, are the best dissections of family life the 1970s ever produced.
But how did the story of GREY GARDENS evolve?
Edith Bouvier Beale was a woman of means, of grand means, in fact — glamorous mansions, sporty cars, country clubs, flashy jewelry — the whole nine yards. When her husband, Phelan Beale, dumped her to run off with a younger woman in 1946, Edie’s life capsized. Emotionally paralyzed, she sank beneath the waves of abandonment. To the rescue came her daughter, Little Edie, herself a high society dame. In 1952, Little Edie moved in to Big Edie’s North Hampton estate, Grey Gardens (the only possession her husband left her), to take care of her mother, to help get her back on her feet. However, misfortune after misfortune befell the Beale women. What had begun as a daughter’s noble attempt to keep her mother afloat ended up with both ladies finding themselves submerged in a dire situation of poverty and loneliness that was to last for more than 40 years.
Two exposes (one put out by The National Enquirer, one in New York Magazine in 1972) made public the plight of Big and Little Edie. The real kicker was that the two Edies were aunt and cousin to none other than Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the most famous woman in the world (and one of the richest). Shamed by the disgrace, Jackie and her sister, Princess Lee Bouvier, provided the financial means to restore Grey Gardens to some of its original state as well as a helping hand to their impoverished aunt and cousin. The Maysles brothers were fascinated by the story of the two Edies, and after requesting and receiving permission to film, the rest was cinema history.
I refuse to think of the Beales as subnormal or lost. True, the pathos of their predicament moves us in unexpected ways. Certainly the house and its occupants became dilapidated, invaded by abulia and melancholy. Grey Gardens falls into such a state of disrepair, it looks like it will implode at any moment. like those old Vegas casinos detonated in the ’90s. But Big and Little Edie do not implode. Anarchy exists in their supremely stubborn refusal to let go of their home. Over their long years there, the house became them. Leaving the house behind would mean losing their identities.
There is something deliciously sociopathic about Big Edie behaving as if everything is alright. Big Edie’s quote, “Living alone forced us to become individuals” says it all — about the power of belief in oneself, the invincibility of dreams. Poverty and hard times give these women the audacity to be unique. Maybe I am making too much of this, but I see Big and Little Edie as distinctly American individualists. They remind me of Thoreau, of Chris McCandless, of Earhart, of Howard Hughes. The Beales are what is to be admired about America. No country should be blindly lionized, no, but any person or nation that comes forth, Lazarus-like, from a dark cave and adverse circumstances deserves our admiration, our respect. Watching the Beales, I am reminded to paraphrase the great T.H. White line: “Many times we died; many times rose again.” Big and Little Edie are fighters. This is why we watch them; they are, warts and all, fascinating eccentrics. We embrace how unlike ourselves they are.
We can say their lives are sad and yet I wonder if they thought so — the movie is full of delights as when the two break into musical standards out-of-the-blue simply because the mood and the moon seize their spirits. Or when they scramble to keep their cat and raccoon menagerie in line at their very exclusive cat and raccoon hotel. Or when Little Edie waxes poetic over her latest fashion design. (“The Best Costume of the Day” is my very favorite). We cannot help but love them at moments like these. They are, after all, Bouvier Beales. They know it, and they know the camera is watching…
This is a story about two intensely proud women battling courageously to keep their dignity and their home. It is also an autobiography of that home. The house becomes a star in its own right, a place of sanctuary for its occupants; like them it might be a bit tattered, its walls and gardens listening for echoes of better days but always hoping for a return to those days. The Beales’ refusal to let it go, in spite of outside urgings that they must, is a testament to the power a dwelling can have in our lives, a “This is our home” invincibility. “It is our ancestor’s castle, it is now our castle and we will defend our right to stay here and to be ourselves here (with our eight thousand cats and raccoons!”) We can accuse Big and Little Edie of living in the past but remember — it was a glorious, glittering, romantic past and their memories are their medicine, a shelter from an ever-encroaching and threatening present. Chuckle at them or don’t — they did survive. Grey Gardens Manor, too, has survived; in 1979 husband and wife journalists, Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, bought it for $220,000 on the condition that the house could not be razed, only restored. A 2015 CBS Sunday Morning profile reveals the house and its grounds have been returned to the splendor of their halcyon days.
The irony of ironies is is that the film transformed these two women into precisely what they believed themselves to be. What Big and Little Edie Beale only imagined they were, they actually became: celebrities of the highest order. Little Edie even managed a lucrative career as a popular nightclub and cabaret performer based upon the success of the film.
An innate, inner quality of dignity and individualism permeate this film. They two Edies did not think they were absurd. In spite of the poverty and the loss, these two women love themselves, love each other and are loved, we can see, by their filmmakers, the Maysles. This love and care is what rescues GREY GARDENS from being a mere curiosity, Indeed, it is why it remains an exemplar in documentary history. A really splendid film!