A Journal Of The Dark Arts
In honour of Mother’s Day, we look at the Bouvier – Beales, an eccentric-but-lovable pair of East Coast bluebloods, in 1975’s Grey Gardens.
The Beales – Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale – are living contradictions. They’re old money – being related to Jacqueline “Jackie O” Bouvier Kennedy-Onassis – but they live in dilapidated squalor. They’re extroverts to the point of exhibitionism yet they rarely left the house. Little Edie is a model “modern woman” in many ways – educated; self-assured; self-directed; forsaking political marriages in favour of love, yet ending up with neither – while remaining rooted in tradition and old world values. Grey Gardens is a fascinating, sometimes tragic, look at two women, and a way of life, that slipped between the cracks.
Grey Gardens follows Big Edie and Little Edie after coming to the attention of The Maysles Brothers, in light of a 1971 scandal when the Bouvier/Beale’s were nearly evicted by the Suffolk County Health Department due to the squalid living conditions. The two Edies were bailed out by none other than Jackie O herself, who donated $32,000 to rejuvenated their house. Nealry 1,000 trash bags were removed from the sprawling 28-room mansion. The Maysles Brothers became fascinated, ultimately befriending the Beales and getting to know them for a year before filming their documentary.
Grey Gardens explores how these two former socialites came upon their fallen state. It’s a feminist cautionary tale, with both women suffering under the yoke of patriarchy. Big Edie was left by her husband, receiving news of her divorce via a telegram from Mexico. Little Edie was cut off from the family fortune, following her decision to not marry the rich man chosen for her. They were left to the mercies of “Black Jack” Bouvier, father of Jacqueline Onassis, who quickly appropriated their money for his own children.
Nothing much happens over the span of Grey Garden‘s 100-minute runtime. Almost the entire movie is spent talking with the two Edies and investigating the fantastic ruin of their estate. It falls somewhere between the burgeoning documentary movement of the 1960s, cinema verite, and direct cinema, the ultimate hands-off, fly-on-the-wall approach. The Maysles Brothers drew some criticism for including themselves in the picture, making Grey Gardens not quite a pure documentary.
It’s a fascinating, compelling one, nonetheless, being named #9 on Sight and Sound’s Best Documentaries of all Time. Those looking for plot-driven cinema might best look elsewhere. Grey Gardens best serves those looking for a fascinating depiction of a vanishing way of life. Despite the Beales’ rundown surroundings, they always seem to have food in the house. They have visitors drop in, whom they offer chicken and corn on the cob and highballs. Those living in similar circumstances in 2020, under the harsh pressures of late capitalism, would be as mellow, reading astrology books and undertaking multiple “costume changes” a day.
Considering Big Edie on Mother’s Day does not we’re putting her forward as Mother of the Year. She was and she wasn’t. The two Edies are models of a number of unhealthy psychological tendencies, most notably codependency. Big Edie also spends much of her screentime sniping and tearing down her daughter. She says some truly terrible things to Little Edie over the course of the film, seemingly almost in competition with her, extolling her virtues and diminisihing Little Edie’s. It’s not exactly the model of selfless parenthood. Little Edie possesses a truly impressive self-confidence, claiming at one point, “I can do very nearly anything,” after her Mom tells her she can’t dance. Big Edie’s cutting barbs seem almost cruel to the point of being abusive, yet they’re likely to sound familiar for anyone with any kind of “well-intentioned” older relative.
Watching Grey Gardens, it seems there may be several forms of mental illness on display, as well. Little Edie seems, at the very least, possibly slightly bipolar, with fits of manic energy but also bouts of clinical despair. There also seems to be some paranoia on display, with Little Edie whispering asides to the camera. Considering their highly insular existence and their truly eccentric surroundings, perhaps some of this paranoia might have been warranted.
Grey Gardens doesn’t wallow or relish in the two Edie’s eccentricities or hardships. The Matsles Brothers don’t moralize, they simply tell this fascinating story. It’s not exploitative, either. Although The Beales were never paid fully what they were owed, but remained thrilled about the movie. It’s gone on to enjoy a storied afterlife, as well, first becoming a cult classic and then inspiring all manner of cultural touchstones. Little Edie became a defacto fashion icon and sometimes celebrity. Little Edie became a much-loved staple of the drag community, even getting a shout on RuPaul’s Drag Race. There was a Broadway musical. It even inspired an HBO movie in 2009 starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
Grey Gardens is a must-watch for fans of slice-of-life cinema and documentaries, or anyone faded with fading Gothic Americana. The Beales are equal parts Miss Havisham ,Tennesse Williams, and Warhol Superstars. It’s prevented from being a tragedy due to a somewhat happy ending for its subjects, although Big Edie died in 1979. Little Edie ultimate sold the estate for $220,000, the equivalent of $775,000, with the caveat that the buyers would renovate the house. Little Edie died in Florida in 2002.
Grey Gardens was even honoured with an expanded double-disc Criterion Collection edition. We’ve been trying our best to check out and review as many Criterion Collection movies as possible, during lockdown, so watch this space and check out Mastering Modernity, where we also talk about movies a great deal, to better help understand this confusing, wonderful world we’re living in.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms out there! You are truly heroes and inspirations!