Perfection: The Third Man
Here I Am Baby

The Other Edie: Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens has almost gone mainstream. OK, it's completely gone mainstream. And though I love the idea of Edith and Little Edie Beale gaining worldwide popularity, I'm leery about one of my favorite documentaries acted on the big screen. There's the Broadway musical, which both Beales might have delighted in, but there's also that possible future movie, something Little Edie was against. Watching the Maysles' famed documentary Grey Garden in the newer Criterion Edition (and returning to this review, tweaked and extended from my original at Willamette Week when I saw the film on the big screen), we see an added scene in which Little Edie discusses her unhappiness about a possible biopic. She claims Julie Christie has been rumored to play her--she's not happy about it. And this is one reason why she agreed to the Maysles very revealing documentary--Edie should play Edie. And indeed she did.

Originally released in 1975, Grey Gardens is an extraordinary, still-relevant and influential work of cinéma vérité by documentary auteurs Albert and David Maysles. The brothers worked together in the documentary genre--or "direct cinema," as they preferred to call it--from 1957 until David's death in 1987; their previous films include Salesman (1969), the heartbreaking precursor to Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and Gimme Shelter (1970), the Rolling Stones' dark antidote (if antidote is the correct word) to Woodstock. Though controversial for their earlier work (a man is stabbed to death by a Hells Angel in Gimme Shelter), they received their most damning criticism for Grey Gardens. Accused of both voyeurism and tabloid-style exploitation of aging women, the brothers pushed the limits of vérité to a bizarre yet recognizably human level. By revealing the intimate power struggle between an artistic mother and her flamboyant daughter, the filmmakers created an unflinching portrait of disturbing power, heightened by the viewer's flinching recognition: Almost everyone has a family, and almost no one's is functional.

But there is an odd, old world beauty in this dysfunction, something that attracts viewers like myself time and time again. I've lost count as to how many times I've watched this film since acquiring a screener in 1998 and every-time I turn it on, I'm riveted by women who have now become like documentary friends. In spite of and honestly, because of their problems, I love them. And If you're a fan, it's nearly impossible to not love these very non-grey subjects, Edith and Edie Beale, daughters of American aristocracy, relatives to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and exotic birds of a paradise lost--two real-life Daisy Buchanan's gone Baby Jane Hudson.

The movie loosely tells the tale of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little Edie" (who died in 2002), a pair of misfits who lived for decades at Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island. Beginning with newspaper headlines screaming about the estate's unsanitary condition and its condemnation by the Suffolk County Health Department (The New York Post stated that the two were "living in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with 8 cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water"), the movie indulges the viewer with the offbeat and spellbinding lives of mother and daughter Beale.

At the helm is Little Edie, who, in her independent, alluring, chatty and creative way, leads the filmmakers through the disordered, spoiled and tangled corridors of their house and minds. Dressed in an assortment of daring ensembles ranging from a bathing suit worn with fishnet stockings and white high heels to towels, curtains and tablecloths (usually topped by an heirloom brooch), Edie is never without a turban and a dramatic gesture, look or utterance. Once a ravishing beauty--truly she was, like a blue-blood Marilyn Monroe--with a sharp wit, Edie mysteriously left a promising career as a dancer, model and actress to live with her aging mother. Despite her insistence that she is "losing her figure," she is still attractive, regardless of the camera's unflattering angles.

The same holds true for Big Edie, who in her youth looked much like Uma Thurman. The sister of "Black Jack" Bouvier (Jackie's father) and former wife of Wall Street lawyer Phelan Beale, Big Edie was the black sheep. Once at Grey Gardens, she was free to pursue the pastimes that brought her great joy and a bohemian reputation: singing, playing the piano and hanging out with her artistic, mostly male friends. Less eager to be filmed than her dramatic daughter, she is all at once a shrew, a formidable intellect and an artist who appears enraptured when she sings in a trembly 79-year-old voice.

Both women's distinct personalities fill the picture with a sublime mixture of looniness, camp and genuine intelligence. These women may hermit themselves in their estate, resting on dirty twin beds while listening to Norman Vincent Peale's radio exaltations of  "positive thinking," but they are in their own Miss Havisham way -- independent--even if relying on one another so much. Though the Maysles refrain from using standard techniques of documentary narration, the mother-and-daughter interaction itself illustrates the Beales' simultaneously tumultuous and stagnant life. The two women live in aristocratic squalor, eating liver pâté, ice cream and crackers; singing, dancing and bickering in their bedroom; and feeding Wonder Bread and Cat Chow to the raccoons living in their attic. And they are frequently witty--enough so that much of their banter would do Tennessee Williams proud.

Big Edie, having lived alone for 30 years, considers herself an independent spirit: "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted." When Little Edie accuses her mother of being anti-Catholic, Big Edie exclaims: "What the hell, I worship the Catholic church!" And when a cat is spied crouching next to a beautiful old painting of Big Edie, she says amused: "Oh look, the cat's going to the bathroom on my portrait...I'm glad someone's doing something he wanted to do."As hilarious as much of the women's rapport is, it is also tinged by a bitter, sometimes wistful pain. "I missed out on everything," moans Little Edie. "I was stuck here." Laughing, her mother says, "You're never gonna get out of here."

Though their connection is certainly entertaining, it also a potent, poignant example of  a love-hate relationship built on fear, ferociousness and a shared desire to really, remove themselves from the harsh world. And who can blame them? The Maysles brothers capture their bond expertly, and the viewer cannot turn away. Like many great dramas, it's a magnification of of our own strained bonds, it speaks to those of us who have chosen a less traditional path in life and it's strangely comforting--these gals may be old but they're certainly not over. And they're anything but boring.

Is the film cruel or simply truthful? Both the Maysles and the Beales thought the latter, and both "staunch characters" staunchly defended the film. Those who leave this film thinking of the Beales as mere freaks are missing Grey Gardens' major questions: What is healthy? What is wealth and breeding? What is normal? What kind of life should you lead? And is there a type of beauty in veering off course? At the end of Grey Gardens one may echo Little Edie misquoting Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in yellow wood. Pondering one, I took the other... Isn't that beautiful?"

Comments

april glaspie

This is an acutely written journal, so I have to wonder why you think an antidote for Woodstock was necessary. Launch the louche and jaded era? I didn't go to Woodstock, but I was at Altamont when that guy got stabbed.

I've always thought it was ironic that the victim looked like a percussion player in Tower of Power, or Huey P. Newton on a rare night off, one or the other). I was extremely wide awake under the influence, and everything about the place, the atmosphere, the people, the music were pretty scary and exceptionally exciting.

Haven't seen the other movies these guys made, but now I will. I'd take the idea that somebody like, oh, Peter O'Toole or Albert Finney (oh wait, he did, in Under the Volcano) might play my part in a movie, but expressing displeasure at being played by Julie Christie seems like evidence of remarkable individuality

I've watched Gimme Shelter several times, and the primary feeling I get from it is that the Stones reacted to the replay like somebody'd beaten the shit out of them. We didn't really know what happened 'til the next day. It's a sad world when hallucinatory events intrude on your hallucinations.

It's a very good movie, but that evil seems a little old-fashioned these days, when it's all been PNAC- corporatized and Wahabidst. Ten decades, for the gods they made.

Anyway, I was a lot closer to a Yippie than a hippie but I think today that Woodstock may have been the silver bullet that could have prevented the global syphilis that's ravaged the planet since then.

theron

I think "Grey Gardens" has totally gone mainstream, Kim. Anytime a small film has a major Broadway musical based upon it, the film's gone mainstream - whether we like it or not (see: "Hairspray").

Kim

You're right. Living here in Hollywood, not exposed to the tourists searching for the next "Cats" I sometime forget just how mainstream Broadway really is. If you noticed then, I settled on the fact that "Grey Gardens" is now officially mainstream.

But that's a good thing, somewhat. If it drives people to the documentary, great. I'm just not sold on the movie. Drew Barrymore as Little Edie?


theron

I shudder to think who the Hollywood Machine might place in that role. I can see Brittany eyeing this role as her chance to come back and be taken seriously...yikes. And don't scoff - you know it could happen.

Robert

Sweet! A Kim Morgan exclusive Q&A session, don’t see too many of these gems up at yon Sunset Gun. I’ll play along and I will keep my eyes on my own paper…promise.

“What is healthy?”
As you stated, The Suffolk County Health Department declared this mansion to be condemned and I would have to agree with them. That’s different from saying that the Beales were living in a dysfunctional environment. They seem to tolerate their living quarters to a degree. To me, their environment was unhealthy…both mentally and physically.

“What is wealth and breeding?”
Wealth and breeding don’t mean jack if you don’t keep the ties with your family growing and nurtured. Jackie tried to help at times, but Team Beales rarely accepted help from anyone.

“What is normal?”
The opposite of abnormal. Seriously, each culture has their social norms. What is accepted by one culture is rarely seen as “normal” by any other culture. And even within a select culture the term normal is debated. Both the Beales were insouciant to a fault, especially the daughter. But were they normal? No. Is someone on the opposite end of the spectrum normal? No. Short answer long…normalcy doesn’t exist.

“What kind of life should you lead?”
The Golden Rule.

“And is there a type of beauty in veering off course?”
Most definitely. The Maysles brothers would never have filmed Grey Gardens if the subjects didn’t veer off course as compared to the rest of American society. To film a doc with characters that didn’t have any life in them, or for a better word “boring” it would have to be a comedy. “Real Life” by Albert Brooks comes to mind. Beauty is veering off course and showing the world something they don’t see in everyday life.

All right teach, mail me my grade and I’ll leave an apple on your desk on the way out.

PS April, try and get your hands on a short called “Lot 63, Grave C”…http://www.sf360.org/features/2006/04/a_tour_through.html

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