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Ghosts, Squalor and Love: “Grey Gardens” (1975) Review

Mike Grindle is a freelance culture writer with a love for film, music, and literature.

The Beale sisters: Little Edie (left) and Big Edie.

The Beale sisters: Little Edie (left) and Big Edie.

Grey Gardens (1975)

In 1971, a news report came to the attention of documentary filmmakers, the Maysles brothers. The article described "two cousins of Jaqueline Kennedy" inhabiting "a garbage-infested, filthy, 28-room house" and having received an order to "clean up or face eviction." These cousins were Edith Bouvier Beale (who was actually Jaqueline's aunt) and Edith Bouvier Beale, a pair known to many as 'Big Edie' and 'Little Edie', respectively. And the 28-room house was the once lavish mansion by the sea known as Grey Gardens.

Clearly, something was amiss. But, before the Maysles could investigate further, Jaqueline came to the pair's rescue with a $32,000 donation. Nonetheless, the Maysles sensed a film in the Beales. And in 1974, they all but moved in for two months to shoot footage of the pair. The resulting documentary, Grey Gardens, told a story of eccentricity, degradation, and a unique bond between a mother and daughter who had fallen hard from fame and fortune.

In Grey Gardens, the Maysles find the Beales back on the downswing. The gardens surrounding their home are overgrown, 'Big Edie' is near-bedbound, and their many cats defecate where they please ("Mother doesn't believe in Kitty Litter"). Little Edie, always dressed in makeshift skirts and headscarves, leaves out loaves of bread for the raccoons that climb in through holes in the walls.

The women themselves seem in somewhat good spirits. Both instinctive performers at heart, the pair seemingly love nothing more than playing up to the camera. And however it is they mean to come across, there's no denying their ability to entertain. Though the dichotomy between their exuberance and decay underpins all.

"There are some nice people in the world, you know, I just don't happen to be related to any of them."

— Little Edie

Singing along to phonographic records, rifling through photo albums, and talking of failed marriages, careers, and engagements, the external and internal lives of the women seem haunted by the unbridled wealth and wasted opportunities of their past. Still, Little Edie, performing dance routines and talking about moving to the city, remains impassioned by youthful desires now beyond her reach. All the while, her sickly mother lays under the shadow cast by a massive portrait of her younger self. "The cat's going to the bathroom right in back of my portrait." she notes in one scene, "I'm glad he is. I'm glad somebody's doing something they want to do."

"Grey Gardens is oozing with romance, ghosts, and other things," little Edie tells us elsewhere, and she's perhaps not all that off the mark. The past seems as if to reverberate off the crumbling walls of her home, leaving neither woman not entirely alone. Indeed, the place brings to mind the estates and castles of gothic literature. And against the entities that besiege them here, the women have taken to desperately clinging to the other.

So used to each other's company, have the mother and daughter become that they communicate in a fashion that resembles how one might talk to themselves. All in their own unique language of bickering and singsong, that is. Indeed, they're every bit the closed system, something which is only highlighted when they receive two quiet and distant guests for Big Edie's birthday. Though every bit of their personalities screams extroversion, they can't quite realign with the changing world around them that Grey Gardens has cut them off from.

Thanks to the Maysles brothers' direct cinema technique, the women do, in a sense, tell their own story. But it's hard to argue that an element of exploitation doesn't pervade proceedings. And despite Big Edie and Little Edie's apparent desire for an audience, an aspect of voyeurism pertains to the whole viewing experience. Don't think the Beales won't make you laugh, though, no matter how tinged each scene is with sadness.

"We better check on mother and the cats. She's a lot of fun. I hope she doesn't die. I hate to spend another winter here though. Oh god, another winter"

— Little Edie

Big Edie wouldn't be long for the world following the film's release. And following a failed series of ill-conceived cabaret performances, the remainder of her daughter's life proved an even more solitary existence in her absence. But while the two women could not leave their mark on the world in life, the documentary became a cultural touchstone of sorts, inspiring films, musicals, and other media. And it's perhaps only a fitting legacy for the film that the Beales did get the audience they so desperately craved after all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mike Grindle