#162) Grey Gardens (1975)

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#162) Grey Gardens (1975)

OR “American Gothic”

Directed by Albert Maysles & David Maysles & Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer

Class of 2010

The Plot: Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” were once East Hampton socialites, but a series of misfortunes has led to them living practically penniless in their beachside mansion, a decrepit shell of its former glory. When the Health Department threatens them with eviction, their famous relative Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis intervenes and helps finance a major repair on the house. Shortly after, filmmakers Albert & David Maysles start documenting the day-to-day life of the Beales. Most of their time is spent feeding their countless cats (and stray raccoons), reliving past victories and defeats, and endlessly arguing with each other about practically everything. Oh, and there’s a kid named Jerry who helps out around the house. He likes Big Edie’s corn.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the film’s influence on documentaries, and calls it an “absorbing sometimes disturbing look” at its two leads.

But Does It Really?: Like many of the greats, “Grey Gardens” defies its own genre. Yes it’s a documentary, but beyond that it is a pure gothic horror story and a fascinating character study of a very intense mother-daughter relationship. These are two people whose present life is uninhabitable, leading to the constant hoarding of their past; reliving and revising it until it drives them insane. “Grey Gardens” is a Tennessee Williams drama that could only exist in the movies, yet unfolded in real-time. It is one of the most captivating documentaries ever made. Why it had to wait 21 years to make the list I have no idea.

Shout Outs: Brief references to “A Night at the Opera” and “Salesman” (another Maysles documentary). Little Edie sings “People Will Say We’re in Love” from “Oklahoma!

Everybody Gets One: There is much speculation about what life was like for the Beales prior to the film. Little Edie returned home from New York in 1952, and stayed there for the next 25 years. The death of resident handyman Tom Logan in 1963 and a burglary in 1968 led to the Beale women shutting themselves off from the world. They came to the attention of the Maysles Brothers when a proposed documentary on Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister) fell through.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Best Documentary Oscar nomination for “Grey Gardens”. That year the Academy voted for “The Man Who Skied Down Everest”, a film about… a man who skies down Everest.

Other notes

  • Every time I watch this film I have to remind myself, “This is real. These are real people. This actually happened.”
  • Amazingly, Little Edie’s horoscope book “It’s All in the Stars” is still in print!
  • Oh Jerry. You just wanted to make some extra cash doing yard work. You weren’t looking for film immortality, it just turned out that way.
  • Speaking of, “The Marble Faun” is definitely not required high school reading any more.
  • Since there’s no real audience surrogate in this film, my loyalty between the two leads shifts with each viewing of “Grey Gardens”. Sometimes I sympathize with Little Edie, never truly free from her mother’s passive psychological grip. But then other times I side with Big Edie, a woman whose sad decline is only exacerbated by her daughter’s frequent dramatics. It’s endlessly complicated, and ultimately sad, but the veil of cinema makes it all slightly more palatable.
  • One of my favorite shots is when the camera pans from the house to the street, where a few cars pass by. The “real” world of 1970s East Hampton is readily available to the Beales at any time.
  • Little Edie is funnier than Judy Holliday? Hold my beer…
  • Is there a greater metaphor for the Beales’ lives than the shot of the cat peeing on Big Edie’s portrait?
  • Oh my god: Other People! Lois Wright was actually a much more prominent figure in the lives of Big & Little Edie, even living with them shortly after filming wrapped. She has written several books (and painted many pieces of art) about the Beales through the years. Very little is known about the other party guest, other than his name: Jack Helmuth.
  • Part of the film’s unreliability is that Little Edie is always aware of the camera and seems to always be “on” for the Maysles. Look no further than her dance number. It’s practically an MGM screen test.
  • This may be one of the few films to offer a correction during the credits. The end crawl includes the correct version of the Robert Frost poem Little Edie tries to recite.
  • The version I saw ends with a delightful audio epilogue of Albert Maysles calling Little Edie towards the end of her life in the early 2000s, when she was residing in Bal Harbour, Florida. 

Legacy

  • After Big Edie’s death in 1977, Little Edie continued to live in Grey Gardens for two years before selling the house to Ben Bradlee (of Washington Post/Watergate fame) and his wife Sally Quinn. The two restored the house over many years, with Quinn eventually selling it in 2017 for $15 million.
  • “Grey Gardens” is one of the rare documentaries to spawn a Broadway musical. The 2006 stage version speculates what life was like for the Beales before and during “Grey Gardens”, and provides a tour-de-force performance for whoever plays young Big Edie/old Little Edie.
  • In 2006, Albert Maysles cobbled together outtakes from “Grey Gardens” to make a second film, “The Beales of Grey Gardens”. It’s the “Wake Up, Ron Burgandy” of documentaries!
  • Similar to the stage version (but with less songs), the 2009 HBO movie “Grey Gardens” examines the Beales over the course of 30 years. This film also reminds us that, with the right material, Drew Barrymore can be a brilliant actor.
  • Jerry Torres still makes appearances at screenings of the film, as well as productions of the stage version, graciously answering questions about his time with the Beales. Fun Fact: At one point he was an assistant for Wayland Flowers and Madame!
  • The internet really wants me to mention Jinkx Monsoon’s performance as Little Edie on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. “Snatch Game” is always a season highlight, and Jinkx wins this round hands down.
  • “Pitter patter, pitter patter, it’s just my heart, what does it matter…”

2 thoughts on “#162) Grey Gardens (1975)”

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