On Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens is a 1975 documentary film by Albert and David Maysles, featuring the eccentric Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”), and Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), the aunt and first cousin to former First Lady Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis (née Bouvier). In 2010, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”According to the IFC article, “5 Things You Didn’t Know About The Classic Documentary Grey Gardens“:

The Maysles Brothers are some of the most influential documentarians to ever step behind the camera. So it’s no wonder that their iconic 1975 documentary (which inspired a Broadway musical and a HBO film), is one of the films that Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers chose to pay tribute to on their new IFC series Documentary Now!.

The Maysles’ approach to their subjects was unconventional when they began making films in the 1960s, choosing to let the action play out naturally as opposed to coming into a project with a pre­set narrative in mind. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Grey Gardens, where the brothers put a camera into the lives of the two Edith Beales, a pair of reclusive women related to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who lived together in a decaying manse in East Hampton. Surrounded by scions of wealth and power, the Beales spiraled into a bizarre insular existence that’s fascinating to observe. Even if you’ve watched the flick as many times as we have, there’s still plenty to discover in Grey Gardens. Here are five fascinating facts that may be new to you.

1. THE BEALES WERE NOT THE ORIGINAL SUBJECT OF THE MOVIE.

Albert and David Maysles didn’t set out to document Grey Gardens. The duo were actually in the pre-­production stages of a movie about Jackie O and her sister Lee Radziwill and their childhood growing up in the Bouvier family. Radziwill gave the Maysles access to her whole family, but after they shot for two weeks, they realized that the Beales alone would be more than enough for a feature. Needless to say, Lee wasn’t too happy about this decision. Because she’d footed the bill for the project, the film was hers. About an hour-and-a-half of footage of the Beales had been shot, which she confiscated and has never seen the light of day. A year later, the Maysles went back to Grey Gardens and pitched a new film to Big Edie and Little Edie, and the rest is film history.

2. LITTLE EDIE HAD A NIGHTCLUB CABARET SHOW AFTER THE MOVIE.

When Big Edie passed on in 1977, Little Edie’s inheritance was quickly gobbled up by taxes and fees. Although she still received help from her wealthy family, it wasn’t making ends meet. So she finally had the chance at age 60 to fulfill a lifelong dream and sing for her supper, being booked into a residency at Greenwich Village club Reno Sweeney. For eight nights, Edie danced and sang a variety of tunes (she of course did “Tea for Two” for the Grey Gardens fans), including two originals she had written. The performances were given an additional air of oddness due to Edie’s eyepatch ­(she had cataract surgery just two weeks before her run started and was medically required to wear it) and the costume she claimed to have made from her late mother’s wardrobe. After the shows, Little Edie went back to Grey Gardens and lived there for another two years before finally selling the famed property.

3. A MAN DIED IN THE KITCHEN.

Both Beales talk extensively about ghosts during Grey Gardens, claiming that several unsettled spirits haunt the creaky old house. Big Edie’s tales of a sea captain are probably nonsense, but at least one person did pass on to the other side in the house during the Beales’ life there. Tom “Tex” Logan was one of many East Hampton locals hired by the Edies to take care of things around the house, working at Grey Gardens from 1955 to 1964. The Beales met him in Montauk where he was playing steel guitar at the Sea Spray Inn and drew him into their vortex of madness. Many people report that Logan had a thing for Big Edie and took the position to try and get closer to her. Logan wasn’t the most reliable handyman, and would go on drinking binges and hitchhike out of town, showing up weeks or months later as the house fell into disrepair. The final time he vanished, he came back with a brutal case of pneumonia that ended his life in the kitchen of Grey Gardens.

4. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO WEAR FLEA COLLARS.

As seen in the film, Grey Gardens fell into disrepair over time. Big Edie refused to sell the mansion, which was subject to a number of health inspections and much media coverage. Besides the many stray cats that lived with the Beales, the property was overrun by raccoons, possums and fleas. (Little Edie even comments on the flea problem in the film.) Sally Quinn, who purchased the property in 1979 with her husband Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, said, “you had to have flea collars on” to even enter the house. This proved true for the filmmakers and crew as well, who had to wear flea collars around their ankles while filming to avoid scratching themselves constantly during takes.

5. YOU CAN STAY IN GREY GARDENS.

Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn put a great deal of work into Grey Gardens after purchasing it from Little Edie in 1979. When they first visited, Little Edie pitched the property by saying “All it needs is a little paint!” Obviously, the repairs turned out to be much more involved. Bradlee discovered dozens of dead cats on the premises, and many of the interior walls were rotten to the point of no return. The floor was completely ripped out and replaced and the kitchen was gutted and combined with another room. Amazingly, much of the original furniture in the attic was salvageable and restored. The Bradlees typically spent August of every year at Grey Gardens, as is Hamptons tradition, but after Ben died, Sally put the property up as a summer rental. If you’ve got a spare $250,000, you could spend a summer living like the Beales. Well, maybe without all the stray cats.

According to the Salon article, ““Grey Gardens”: The lost world of Little Edie, still amazing after 40 years“:

If you’ve never seen the Maysles brothers’ legendary 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens,” which returns to theaters this week in a gorgeous 40th-anniversary restoration (with home-video release to follow), you’re in for an otherworldly experience not quite like anything else in the history of cinema. If “Grey Gardens” doesn’t seem as distinctive now as it did four decades ago, that’s because it transformed the art and craft of documentary film – at least as much as Michael Moore would do later – and so many things made afterward have followed in its footsteps. But the world it captures, with its mother-daughter pair of aristocratic castoffs and their crumbling, weed-choked East Hampton mansion infested with cats and raccoons, is now so utterly vanished as to seem fantastic, an allegorical dream concocted by Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O’Connor more than real people who existed within living memory.

As with so many moments of artistic revolution, the influence of “Grey Gardens” has been a double-edged sword. One could say, unkindly but not untruthfully, that this film pioneered the documentary as freak show, a window into bizarre, eccentric or unknown social worlds. But in this instance, at least, the filmmaking duo of Albert and David Maysles and their editors, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (who are credited as co-directors), transcended the limitations of voyeurism or ethnographic detachment. Although the Maysles brothers are usually described as practitioners of cinéma-vérité or “direct cinema,” they cheerfully violate that movement’s supposed rules in “Grey Gardens,” frequently conversing with their subjects, accepting drinks and (terrifying) hors d’oeuvres – I had forgotten about the existence of Sell’s liver paté, a tinned delicacy barely distinguishable from cat food that my own grandmother used to serve — and occasionally appearing on camera.

The Maysles brothers could never have made the film without becoming friendly with the two Edith Bouvier Beales – now immortalized as “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” – the cousin and elderly aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (respectively) who lived in incredible chaos and decrepitude amid the wealthiest beach town in North America. The filmmakers apparently discovered the Beale household while planning a documentary about Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jackie Onassis (which they promptly abandoned), and spent a year getting to know the two Edies before bringing their 16mm camera into the house. So “Grey Gardens” is not just a portrait of the unbelievable, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”-grade madness they found there, but a tribute to that friendship. That sense of mutual trust and affection comes through in every frame and every scene, even when Little Edie swerves into paranoid delusions or the cats relieve themselves behind the framed portraits, and the film is funnier, better and richer for it.

With her endless array of headscarves, her peculiar, pantyhose-based fashion aesthetic and her old-school, upper-crust Manhattan drawl – an accent long since vanquished by television and the Ivy League – Little Edie is unquestionably the star of “Grey Gardens.” (The first name Marjorie comes out as “MAWJ-ree”; the subject she chose in college to please her estranged father, whom she always calls “Mr. Beale,” was “English lit-ra-CHOOR,” to go along with “Oriental philosophy.”) But it’s a tribute to the Maysles brothers both as filmmakers and human beings that she is a star, an unforgettable melodramatic heroine, rather than purely an object of pity or derision. When they meet her, Little Edie is already well beyond Blanche DuBois territory, a onetime bathing beauty in her 50s who is unmarried, lives with her mother and may suffer from untreated mental illness. She reads horoscopes with a magnifying glass (yearning for a “Libran husband”), performs a dance routine to a record of the VMI fight song, and nurses obscure decades-old grudges. She constantly complains about having abandoned her bustling city life in Manhattan to care for her mother (when it may well have been the other way around), assuring the Maysles that she would be happier in any New York rathole, “even on 10th Avenue.” If you pay attention it becomes clear that this traumatic move happened in 1952, or 23 years ago.

There’s no doubt that the Little Edie of “Grey Gardens” has inspired innumerable drag performances and self-deluded fictional characters, but I think that testifies to her enduring iconic power. (The real Edie Beale died in 2002, having left the Hamptons behind for Florida.) Of course we laugh at her when she feeds the raccoons in the attic or compares a feckless local handyman to Hawthorne’s “The Marble Faun” – a reference I have repeatedly tried and failed to comprehend — but our laughter is just as much in the spirit of compassion, or wonder, as in mockery. Edie is a model of aphoristic composure amid total insanity and decay and ruination, a perversely magnificent figure whose disordered charisma remains potent. (I think her mother is correct that the handyman, perhaps 35 years younger than Little Edie, is smitten with her.) As Little Edie herself puts it, there is nothing more formidable than “a staunch woman – S-T-A-U-N-C-H … They don’t weaken, no matter what.”

Little Edie and Big Edie already seemed like relics in 1975, but the peculiar caste of American wealth they represented, and which had cast them out – the Northeast Corridor Catholic aristocracy that sought to out-WASP the WASPs on their home ground – was still dimly visible in the Kennedy family and its imitators. “I only cared about three things,” says Little Edie, “the Catholic Church, swimming and dancing, and I had to give them up.” That class has disappeared into the general swirl of white American money, and no one, regardless of their impressive family history, would now be permitted to live in such filth and squalor among the McMansions of the Hamptons.

From this distance, I think we can read a coded portrait of resistance beneath the phantasmagorical surface of “Grey Gardens,” and beneath Little Edie’s catechism of renunciation. She might have slapped you for calling her a feminist, while her earthier and more pragmatic mom might have liked it. Neither of them was cut out for the cushioned prison of upper-class marriage and motherhood, and by choice or out of necessity they turned their backs on that world and carved their own deeply strange paths. I kept wanting to tell Little Edie that you don’t actually need to feed raccoons; they do pretty well on their own, and it definitely won’t stop them from raiding your kitchen. But then it occurred to me that the point was not to resist or defer chaos, but to invite it.

According to the FilmMisery review:

One of the aspects of documentary filmmaking that has always intrigued me is how the individuals behind the camera interact with their subjects. The question has always lingered in the back of my mind about how much truth was actually being captured when an person has a small camera crew of strangers standing silently beside them recording their every move. Personally I find it the most satisfying when a filmmaker acknowledges their presence among their subjects. Once that fourth wall is torn down, we can get a more honest insight into the world of the characters.

In the documentary Grey Gardens, directors David and Albert Maysles reveal themselves in a mirror early in the film. There is no illusion of detachment from the Maysles brothers. For them the camera and boom mic simply give the audience their own perspective as they converse with their subjects and eventually find the woman they point their camera at trying to seduce them.

That woman is the endlessly fascinating Edie Bouvier Beale, known as “Little Edie” to avoid confusion with the film’s other central character Edith Beale, her mother. Little Edie is best known for being the cousin of former First Lady Jackie Onassis Kennedy. She was a socialite and fashion model, born to live the idle life of an aristocrat until she made the life-altering decision to return to her East Hampton home and care for her elderly mother.

The documentary picks up in the early 1970s, several decades after Little Edie returned to Grey Gardens for good. Now in her 50s, Little Edie lives in denial that her looks and wealth are fading and has become a character that resembles Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. She wears a scarf at all times to prevent anyone from seeing her gray hair and still believes that male suitors are lining up to ask for her hand (for what other reason would Jerry, the 20-something handyman, keep coming by?). Edith and Little Edie spend their days rummaging through old photographs, singing and dancing to their own songs, and having what appear to be the same arguments they have had for decades.

While David and Albert Maysles are capturing the day to day routine of the two Beale women, they also encounter something that was probably unexpected – the growing affection that the women have for the filmmakers. One of the most iconic scenes features Little Edie doing an upbeat dance with an American flag while flashing seductive eyes at the camera. It’s hard not to get the feeling that it’s not the camera she is trying to impress, but the person behind it. The Maysles brothers cleverly keep themselves out of sight in moments like these so the audience gets to feel those dark eyes looking directly at them.

Despite the painfully obvious fact that their best days are behind them, both Edith and Little Edie constantly look toward the future. “I need to get back my old singing voice,” optimistically declares Edith before breaking into a lengthy rendition of “Tea for Two.” It’s admittedly not altogether pleasant to watch the mental deterioration of two women set against the decaying mansion they call home. However, pity does not seem to be the emotion that the Maysles brothers want the audience to feel. Nor do they present the Beales as objects of ridicule. By placing the camera in between themselves and the two women, the Maysles brothers make their subjects more universal and inspire the viewers to reconcile with their own lost dreams.

In a day when questionably imbalanced celebrities are more likely to be the target of parody videos than insightful character studies, Grey Gardens seems like an anomaly. It is hard to consider it exploitation when the women seem to be enjoying every minute of their time in front of the camera. Besides the eccentric weirdness, the Maysles brothers capture just as many moments of beauty, as when Little Edie sits in contemplation and admits “it’s sometimes hard to separate the past from the present.” While their wealth, beauty, and estate crumble around them Little Edie and Edith Beale are exceptionally happy living in each moment of pure joy. When their songs and dances begin, I was equally pleased to forget about the day to day and enjoy the moment right along with them.

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2 thoughts on “On Grey Gardens

  1. Pingback: On The Beales of Grey Gardens | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Grey Gardens | The Progressive Democrat

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