A movie directed by Christopher Quinn
Out in East Hampton, behind a cloud of overgrown foliage and weeds, there is a large decaying mansion which is home to Edith Bouvier Beale and her grown-up daughter Little Edie. Big and Little Edie are the aunt and first cousin of Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis, … see full wiki
Edith (mother) and Edie (daughter) Beale were aunt and cousin to Jacquline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. In the early 1970’s the city of East Hampton threatens to evict both of them from their 28 room Hamptons mansion with its 8 cats, fleas, filth, and no working plumbing. Ms. Onasis pays for the house to be cleaned.
After this, the Maysles brothers (who made the documentary Gimme Shelter) decided to film these two women. Apparently, sometime in the end of the 1950s, young Edie moved back to Grey Gardens to take care of her mother—at least that is the story. They film the two missus Beales who never leave Grey Gardens. Neither woman is dangerously insane but neither of them is even remotely sane.
Edith talks about the past and her reminisces seem to be accurate or at least not filtered too badly though the coke-bottle lenses of what can only be described as agoraphobia. Then she ‘talks’ to Edie which really means she screeches, disagrees with her daughter, or says things like this: “I didn’t want another man in my kitchen with a cookbook.” She is frequently nearly naked and spends about half her time in a single twin bed.
Edie is, hard to put it any other way, a piece of work. I don’t think that Edith was truly insane; however, Edie is clearly a semi-functioning paranoid schizophrenic. She spends all of her time in one piece bathing suits and scarves over her head (I have to think that she is actually bald given how close to the skin the scarves are). It is possible that neither female was actually insane when Edie moved in; however, each woman brought out the worst of the other. This is one of my favorite comments from the hebephrenic Edie: “I’m mad about animals but raccoons and cats get boring after a while.”
In as much as there is a plot, that is it.
Grey Gardens is one of those pieces that comes along that creates new clichés. At the time there was nothing to compare it to. The Maysles brothers interact a bit with the Beales but for the most part they just film these two eccentric barely getting along in a house that is falling apart surrounded by tsunami made of vines, coastal trees and bushes. The question no one can really answer is whether either Edith tried to take care of the house in the 1950s when the cohabitation began? Surely there as some attempt and the desires to clean or maintain just got eroded by creeping and incipient madness.
Another question that cannot be answered is this: how long would it take for any of the viewers to go nuts, refuse to clean the house, and stop leaving the property? East Hampton apparently hated them, and with reason if you see the shape of the house. However, this is only one fairly weak motive for not staying in touch with the people literally just down the road.
I was, much of the time, horribly uncomfortable watching this documentary. It is voyeurism of an asylum of two. Since they were willing to live in flea infested squalor, what passes for shame in the rest of the country is something altogether missing from the behavioral vocabulary of the two missus Beales. I was embarrassed for them, and I despise being put in that stance.
The little verbal contact with the filmmaker and sound man that the women have seems to show the documentary team as enablers of the eccentricity. There was no attempt to explain the situation; the only snippets we get of the beginning of this peculiar relationship are Edie’s confession that she had to leave New York City to come back and take care of her mother—the problem is that this is difficult to believe because she offers a different motive a dozen minutes on. So instead of sympathy or empathy with what are certainly ill people, we are put in a position where the only reactions are to be nauseous or to laugh and I couldn’t laugh.
A couple of nights ago, I watched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane for the first time (it was well past due that I remedy my having never seen that piece of gay camp). According to a wikipedia article, Baby Jane is the first of a genre of movie called psycho-biddy. As I saw it, there are only three differences between Baby Jane and Grey Gardens: one is fiction, one is in black and white, there is no open hostility that could be considered homicidal. I know that sounds like the movies share little in common; however, at its most basic—two women who at least thought of themselves as having talent and who really can’t stand each other stuck in a mansion with almost no visitors—the two movies are the same.
Grey Gardens has achieved cult movie status. I found out about it through a Rufus Wainwright song (the opening of the song called “Grey Gardens” is a quote from Edie: “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, you know what I mean?”) and was curious for that reason alone. It is unfortunate that this film has become a cult movie. It is the only one I know that is a documentary. It is one thing to laugh at actors or to laugh at sets falling apart at inopportune times in B movies and the like, but it is another thing altogether to laugh at two real women who straddle the line between functionally insane and delusional.
Due to this, it is not a movie I can recommend.
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