September 6, 2009

Grey Gardens (1975)

"The Libra husband is not an easy man to please." -- Edie Beale reads a book on horoscopes with a magnifying glass.

Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, focused on the bizarre lifestyles of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, Big Edie and Little Edie respectively. Born into money and privilege (Big Edie was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's aunt, Little Edie her first cousin), they lived together in a once-luxurious East Hampton house (the Grey Gardens of the title), two eccentrics virtually isolated from the world.

Big Edie in bed.

Had Grey Gardens been fiction, it would have been a pure romp. Picture 80-year-old Big Edie sitting up in a bed in a filthy room, her glasses askew and eyes oddly magnified. She sings along to old records, warbling "Tea for Two" in her high voice. 56-year-old Little Edie (who, for the record, looks at least a decade younger) walks around in swimsuits and headscarves pinned with a brooch on the top of her head. Cats freely roam the house, and the raccoons in the attic are generously supplied with an entire bag of Wonder Bread.

A portrait of a much-younger Big Edie.

But in the real world of the Beales, the viewer immediately grasps what little joy the two have in their lives. Not raised to lead a life where they would have to support themselves, let alone each other, they have let the house fall into utter disrepair, a glorified hell-hole with only their antiques, family heirlooms, and assorted critters for company. With nothing to do and little to look forward to, the Edies are reduced to reminiscing about their past. Portraits and photos reveal that both women were once beautiful. Maysles repeatedly comes back to these portraits, zooming into their pretty, placid faces. But the large portrait of Big Edie is now propped up against a wall, useful only as a cover for the cats to defecate behind. 

A black-and-white photo of a young Little Edie.

Meanwhile, Little Edie flips through a scrapbook, showing photos of her 24-year-old self in a fashion show. A failed singer and actress, she can only mourn the fate that brought her to East Hampton 20 years ago to take care of her mother. Anxious, frustrated, and perhaps a little delusional, she angrily recalls the life she left behind, and how close she was to becoming a star. Whispering a confessional to the camera about a marriage proposal she had decades ago, she's Norma Desmond in a printed headscarf.

With only a handful of scenes shot outside the house (but still within its perimeters), after a while, claustrophobia sets in. You want to escape the Edies, Little Edie with her neverending moaning about wanting to move back to New York, and the seemingly inexhaustible Big Edie yelling for her off-camera. Their
conversations are worn out, the same words exchanged many times over to the point where they hold parallel conversations, each venting their agonies to the unlistening other.

Grey Gardens: The Criterion Collection

Yet, over the years, Grey Gardens has achieved cult status, and interest in the Beales has only increased. A musical based on the documentary debuted in 2006, and an HBO film of the same title was released early this year, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing Big and Little Edie. And through it all, Little Edie has quietly become an unlikely fashion icon, a poster girl of dressing however you damn well please. There is something bittersweet about being "inspired" by a woman who was clearly living in despair, though Little Edie, who died in 2002, would have been delighted. Do you want to dress like Little Edie? Then live a life of disappointments, desperation, and loneliness. See what you come up with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


"Grey Gardens: The Musical" is now playingin Japan. I have questions about this production. I operate a website devoted exclusively to GG, called Grey Gardens Online ( Please email me at Thank you!