Thirty years later, Grey Gardens and its new companion doc still intrigue.
Like many great artists, “Little” Edie Beale received the veneration she always deserved only after her death. It’s been more than four years since she died, and 30 since she first twirled and shrieked her way into the hearts of moviegoers via the Maysles brothers’ documentary Grey Gardens, but her public profile has never been higher. Her personal style, a sort of trash-heap chic (maxim: “You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape”), is copied in fashion-magazine spreads. She’s been rhapsodized by Rufus Wainwright and The Gilmore Girls. Two productions about her life are under way—a musical that’s on Broadway and a biopic (starring Drew Barrymore) that will hit theaters next year. There’s never been a better time to be the fame-hungry Beale.
And there’s never been a better time to watch the newly reissued Grey Gardens. The movie endures because it supplies layer upon layer for viewers to peel away and chew on. Superficially, it’s the story of a once-rich mother in her seventies and a daughter in her fifties who live in squalor and bicker. If the film bores upon first viewing (and it often does), it’s because the ear must be trained to appreciate the offbeat rhythm of Big and Little Edie’s dialogue (some advice: watch it with the subtitles on). These women have confined themselves to two filthy, cat-ridden rooms in a 28-room East Hampton mansion that’s decaying around them. They live surrounded by the reminder of their former aristocracy (not to mention virtual American royalty—Big Edie was Jackie Onassis’s aunt). Gardens is a study of two singularly staunch characters, but it’s also a cautionary tale about what happens when you’re shaken from the American Dream.
Little Edie is the more talkative, mobile and obsequious of the two, and so she emerges as Gardens’ star. And what a star she is. She’s prone to rambling tangents, flights of fancy, delusions of grandeur and plain old delusions. She earnestly tells the camera, “I see myself as a little girl.” Little Edie giggles all along the way, and like the best camp, she leaves the viewer unsure of how to respond: Do we laugh with or at her?
That this is real life captured adds another dimension that allows Gardens to transcend camp altogether—can we even laugh at all, or do we cry at the overall state of these women’s lives? The film, much to its credit and enduring capacity to fascinate, offers no guidance. One of the most pervasive critiques of Gardens is that it exploited the Beales, who were often perceived as unstable. But if the Beales weren’t crazy, turning the camera off would have been more condescending than letting it roll. For what the Maysleses present is a mother-daughter act who don’t so much communicate as entertain, who sing at each other and stage melodramatic scenes that explore codependency. They are born performers who are finally in their element.
The Beales of Grey Gardens is a new film made of previously unseen footage compiled by Albert Maysles (David died in 1987). During the intro feature on the DVD, Albert gushes that interest in the movie “never stops.” Beales may supply a demand, but it has an agenda, too. It hits the ground showboating, as Little Edie sings “You Oughta Be in Pictures” to the camera, laughing and frequently interrupting herself. We understand just how self-aware Edie is when, one scene later, she sits on the porch and talks about the importance of having her life filmed, since she doesn’t want anyone playing her in a movie and can’t be bothered to write it all down. By placing this up front, Maysles counters the criticism that’s probably plagued him for the past 30 years: How can he be held responsible for exploiting someone so eager to be exploited?
Little Edie’s self-awareness unfurls as she talks about East Hampton’s reaction to the Beales’ squalid lifestyle (“We annoyed everybody”) and the allegations of mental illness (“No Beale is schizophrenic. They’re too strong!”). This shading in of details would be lost on someone unfamiliar with the first film, and so Beales is a sort of cult preserver. Beyond its pointed inclusions, the film offers more bickering, more hilarity, more sadness, more cats, more raccoons, more Maysles. Ultimately, it’s more of the same. Fans of the original will understand just how special that makes it.
Grey Gardens and The Beales of Grey Gardens are available Tuesday 5 from the Criterion Collection ($49.95).