As I type this, about twenty people in my library system are waiting for a copy of Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens. Not bad for a documentary from 1975. Oh, wait — it’s because of the Broadway musical. Well, those library patrons are going to get something quite different from what they think they’re getting.
Grey Gardens visits with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ aunt, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and her 56-year-old daughter Edie. They live together in a dilapidated, 28-room mansion known as Grey Gardens, which Edith had owned since 1931. They were almost evicted in 1971, when it was discovered that they were living in poverty and unhygienic squalor; Jackie got her husband Aristotle to foot the bill to have the place cleaned and fixed up. But the wreckage of Grey Gardens is nothing compared to the wrecks who lived there.
Edith — most often called Big Edie, to distinguish her from Little Edie — comes off as the saner of the two, though not by much. She seldom leaves her bed, which teems with clutter and cat shit (cats and raccoons seem to have the run of the place). Little Edie appears to be a case of arrested development; “I like to think of myself as a little girl,” she says, and she wears a variety of scarves and sweaters to conceal her bald head (and, possibly, to duplicate the look and feel of her once-flowing locks). Little Edie gets right up into the camera and sings or dances, mentally playing out the show-biz career she thinks she missed out on.
Much of Grey Gardens is a matter of the Maysles brothers sitting in a room with mother and daughter and recording their bickering or their nostalgic rambling. These women were brought up in an era and a milieu — very pre-feminist — that assured them the world was theirs for the asking if they had the right training and played by society’s rules. At times the movie could be retitled Women Under the Influence. If you spend your life playing a false game and are left with nothing for your troubles, madness may be the only appropriate response.
The portrait is disturbingly bleak. There’s a genuinely ghastly birthday-party scene, with a couple of nonplussed guests drinking cheap wine out of paper cups while Big Edie berates Little Edie for not “taking down the green goblets.” Little Edie flirts with a young gardener, whom she nicknames “the Marble Faun.” She reminded me of Maggie, the delusional homeless woman in the fine documentary Jupiter’s Wife, though that film offered some reason for optimism and this one doesn’t. At the end, Big Edie sits slumped in her filthy bed and Little Edie is dancing amid the peeling wallpaper and cobwebbed banisters of Grey Gardens.
The Maysles brothers clearly feel affection for their subjects personally, though one might question the motive behind placing these women at the center of a movie because of their link to Camelot. (If they were just any two old women, you wouldn’t be reading this review and there wouldn’t be a Broadway show.) Grey Gardens, like the Maysles’ most famous film Gimme Shelter, is borderline exploitative. But the stark power of the dual portrait can’t be denied. The movie is about lives stunted by bad luck and bad choices. Not surefire material for a Broadway musical, but there it is. You’re there in that malodorous, flea-ridden house with Big Edie and Little Edie for 90 minutes, and at the end, like Little Edie, you are ready to leave. I was fascinated by my visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.