The opening shot of Albert and David Maysles’s seminal 1975 documentary Grey Gardens tells you everything you need to know about its two indefatigably eccentric protagonists, Little and Big Edie Beale. From within the dark confines of a dilapidated society mansion in East Hampton, the camera peers out onto the porch and by extension the world, establishing the viewpoint from which the home’s inhabitants are situated within the world. The women inside, octogenarian Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, ‘Big Edie,’ and her daughter of the same name, ‘Little Edie,’ are shut-ins, withdrawn from a world that has changed around them so steadfastly that coping would be an embarrassment too ghastly to imagine.
A bit of genealogy goes a long way: Big Edie is the sister of John “Black Jack” Bouvier, whose daughter, Jacqueline Bouvier, Edie’s niece, would later “become” first lady Jackie Kennedy. Big Edie’s childhood was appropriately privileged, as was the majority of her and her daughter’s adult life. In her youth Big Edie pursued an amateur singing career, while Little Edie moved to Manhattan and achieved some moderate success as a model.
They live in the wealthy Georgica Pond community of East Hampton among other fabulously wealthy socialites and business entrepreneurs. The estate, Grey Gardens, is set on a huge plot of land and is itself immaculately constructed, as one might expect a society estate in an old-money neighborhood to be.
Of those prosperous times, you only see traces of mother, daughter, and home through newspaper clippings. You hear about them through the remembrances of the two, who regale in telling about the old days of wine and roses, casually shrugging off or failing to give much notice to their now deplorable conditions.
What happened to the family is quite simple: they ran out of money. Little Edie came back from Manhattan to take care of her aging, widowed mother, and as the house fell into disrepair so, too, did they. You discover them now in good spirits, all things considered. The house is mostly uninhabitable, except for an incongruously tidy dining room in which guests occasionally visit. Raccoons, rodents, and cats leisurely wonder through the halls, pissing and shitting wherever they like, drawn, no doubt, by the hoarded mess and by Little Edie’s willingness to feed them. The Beales receive infrequent help from a house boy, Jerry, whom Big Edie is sure is vying for her daughter’s attention. “I’m much too old,” Little Edie retorts.
The film proceeds for 90 gloriously unstructured minutes during which the pair bickers and reunites repeatedly, their enmeshed relationship understandable only to them. For their part, the Maysles mostly stay out of the way and let the women do their thing. Big Edie occasionally sings the songs of her youth, while Little Edie, master storyteller that she is, talks about Manhattan and the men that got away.
Seen now in a culture immersed in reality television and unearned celebrity, the innovative awesomeness of Grey Gardens’ unfussy vérité approach may not be quite as apparent. The Maysles present Big and Little Edie in their natural environment and on the move, not through a rote series of seated interviews, as has sadly become the norm in subsequent documentaries. Sometimes the filmmakers prompt with questions to tease out the duo’s history or details, but more often than not the two, especially Little Edie, is happy to pontificate verbosely through her now-classic Long Island socialite affect.
Big and Little Edie are characters and sweet people. Their rapport wouldn’t be out of place in an SNL sketch (Bronx Beat, for instance). The documentarians don’t exploit their sad state of affairs. Rather, they lovingly craft a document that has resounded with audiences for generations. The documentary, and the women’s, influence is seen throughout culture: The runways of Paris, pop songs, Broadway musicals, A-list television movies, and drag impersonators have all paid homage to the women from Grey Gardens.
The sadness one feels when watching the women comes from knowing that somewhere, deep down, Big and Little Edie have resigned themselves to the inevitability of their surroundings. They put up a good front, but they’re not really fooling anyone.
“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” Little Edie famously says, prompted of nothing in particular. What fascinates about this story is that it’s the complete inverse of the American dream. How can people with all of life’s privilege and access go from being in one of the most famous families in the country, closely related to the former First Lady, now living in absolute squalor, subsisting mostly on white bread and canned tuna? The Maysles never bother to draw a straight line from A-Z, knowing that the mystery of the duo’s regression is the driving force for the story.
Newly upgraded to Blu-ray, Criterion’s re-release includes the same special features as the original, including interviews with designer Todd Oldham on Little Edie’s forward-thinking, influential style. The big treat here is the inclusion and upgrade of The Beales of Grey Gardens, a second documentary from the same footage released by the Maysles/Criterion in the mid-2000’s. Now you’ve got 3.5 hours of a fascinating family with which to get acquainted. “You ought to be in pictures,” Little Edie croons at the beginning of The Beales. Thanks to the Maysles, they are.