If John Waters, the self-proclaimed pope of trash and director of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988), were to direct a family film for the holiday season, it would probably look a little like Grey Gardens (1975). There are costumes, songs, dances, cats and raccoons, a decaying mansion and a hell of a lot of mixed feelings. What more could you ask for?
Sharing its place with the classic Don’t Look Back (1967), it was recently voted the 9th best documentary of all time by Sight & Sound. After their successful film about The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysles Brothers tell the story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie.
For the past decades, the reclusive pair have lived in near total isolation bar the dozens of cats and raccoons. In the early 1970s, the city of East Hampton tried to evict the Beales from their gothic estate due to a flea infestation, mountains of garbage as well as a lack of running water. In the end, Big Edie and Little Edie were allowed to stay because of one of the most famous women in America: their niece/cousin Jackie Kennedy Onassis. It was ultimately her and her sister Lee Radziwill who provided the necessary funds to renovate the run-down mansion.
Kennedy had originally commissioned the Maysles Brothers to make a documentary about her and her sister Lee. But during their research the filmmakers found themselves much more fascinated with the Beales’ eccentricities than Jackie and Lee’s timeless elegance.
Their instinct proved right. The result became a cult film and audiences loved the film for its camp sensibility and its characters’ sense of humour. There is something strangely addictive about these women and it is difficult to pin down the exact source of this fascination. One thing is certain: it is absurd, obscure, at times a little scary, and utterly amazing.
A strong component of what makes Grey Gardens so rich is its constant shift between different moods. While being incredibly humorous and camp as Christmas on the one hand, there is also a deeply engrained sadness that puts both the viewer and the filmmakers into an interesting moral dilemma that sits at the very crux of the documentary genre.
We are fascinated with the Beales and their refusal to abide by the rules and expectations of society. They insist on living their lives the way they want to. They are unapologetically eccentric and love to perform, yet you get the feeling they are just as eccentric and up for a song and dance when there are no cameras there. Big Edie especially is so completely herself that she simply does not seem to care what other people think. She “had her cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything [she] wanted.” But did Little Edie have the same opportunity to enjoy her cake?
It is hard to ignore the fact that what is unfolding on screen is a deeply co-dependent relationship. Little Edie alludes repeatedly to instances where her mother scared off her boyfriends and pressured her into returning from New York City. While her unique look made her a style icon, the reason for her signature look with the headscarf on her head is the fact that she suffered from severe hair loss due to psychological distress.
The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered and ultimately fails to give a satisfactory explanation of how these women, who used to be members of the East Coast’s high society, ended up living in these circumstances. By the sounds of it, Edie had countless opportunities in her youth and was a beautiful, sought-after young woman. The question ‘How could this happen?’ looms over the entire film and guarantees the viewers’ interest in the pair beyond the end credits.
Both the filmmakers and the audience find themselves in a morally ambiguous position between admiration for these remarkable characters and ‘staunch women’, and a feeling of guilt for one’s own voyeurism. We seem to derive an absurd pleasure in watching them act on screen, yet we have to ask ourselves the question of whether it is ethical to do so. Is it exploitative? Of course. Does the fact that the Beales appear to willingly present themselves to the camera weaken the degree of exploitation? I’m really not sure.
But perhaps it is precisely this odd mix of moods and feelings that make Grey Gardens the rich film it is. And despite the potential tragedy surrounding Little Edie and Big Edie’s arrangement, one cannot help but find these two women infinitely loveable. We watch them with a mixture of awe and uneasy discomfort; we listen to Big Edie singing ‘Tea For Two’ with debutante glee amongst her stained, dirty bed sheets; we watch Little Edie perform her childhood cheerleading in front of a ramshackle staircase that begs for a lick of paint. Is this a film that unflinchingly displays the façade behind the American Dream with warts and all in microscopic detail, or is it an exploitative ‘reality TV’ car crash that we voyeuristically rubbernecked decades before the genre existed? It’s impossible to decide. Either way, it’s one of the most compelling documentaries you will ever see.