Grey Gardens (1975)
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The answer is: Probably not.
But, thankfully, they are (or were) the cousin and aunt of Jackie.
This documentary by the Maysles brothers on the existence (one could hardly call it a life) of Edith B. Beale, Jr., and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Edie), has the same appeal of a train wreck -- you don't want to look but you have to.
Big Edith and Little Edie live in a once magnificent mansion in East Hampton, New York, that is slowly decaying around them. The once beautiful gardens are now a jungle.
Magnificent oil painting lean against the wall (with cat feces on the floor behind them) and beautiful portraits of them as young women vie for space on the walls next to covers of old magazines.
Living alone together for many years has broken down many barriers between the two women but erected others.
Clothing is seems to be optional. Edie's favorite costume is a pair of shorts with panty hose pulled up over them and bits and pieces of cloth wrapped and pinned around her torso and head.
As Edith says "Edie is still beautiful at 56." And indeed she is. There are times when she is almost luminescent and both women show the beauty that once was there.
There is a constant undercurrent of sexual tension.
Their eating habits are (to be polite) strange. Ice cream spread on crackers. A dinner party for Edith's birthday of Wonder Bread sandwiches served on fine china with plastic utensils.
Time is irrelevant in their world; as Edie says "I don't have any clocks."
Their relationships with men are oh-so-strange.
Edie feels like Edith thwarted any of her attempts at happiness. She says "If you can't get a man to propose to you, you might as well be dead." To which Edith replies "I'll take a dog any day."
It is obvious that Edith doesn't see her role in Edie's lack of male companionship. Early in the film she states "France fell but Edie didn't.
Sometimes it is difficult to hear exactly what is being said. Both women talk at the same time and constantly contradict each other.
There is a strange relationship with animals throughout the film; Edie feeds the raccoons in the attic with Wonder Bread and cat food. The cats (and there are many of them) are everywhere.
At one point Edie declares "The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility." But they seem to be unable to take responsibility for themselves.
This is a difficult film to watch but well worth the effort.
Edie never leaves the home or rarely sees anyone, yet she still has the rich, white woman's concern over her weight. It is hilarious to see her peering at the scale through binoculars. When you see pictures of the women as young beauties, it takes your breath away. Edie is still a beautiful woman, and her coquettish behavior at times makes her seem like a young lady.
The language is entirely witty and it is hilarious to see the two women go on and on. Favorite comments -
"France fell but Edie didn't. Edie never fell for anyone." "Why didn't you marry Getty?" "I'm a staunch character! S-T-A-U-N-C-H!" "Lost in a sea of green leaves. I'll never see that scarf again." "This is the revolutionary outfit." "You don't say luh-ove! You're not Czechoslovakian!" "All I need is to find this Libra man!"
The cats and racoons are a site to see, as is the faded mansion. A wonderful window into the world of two compelling characters, their lives, and their memories. Yes it is at times sad, but at the same time, these two are fabulous!
Although the Maysles and their fans (not to mention Edith and Edie themselves) bristle at the suggestion that this film is exploitative, this is exploitation in the truest sense of the word. Very little effort is every made to explain the Beales or how they came to the condition they were in - the Maysles approach seems to be to just turn the camera on and wait for Edith and Edie to say something outrageous. The sound, even on the Criterion re-release is poor and difficult to follow. Although I appreciate this film was made somewhat early in the history of documentary film, it's ironic to compare it to Geraldo Rivera's (!) far superior series on the sexual abuse of mentally retarded patients at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island from 1972, four years before Grey Gardens was shot.
To paraphrase a review in the New Yorker, there were many things Edith and Edie needed in their lives, and a documentary wasn't one of them.
As for Edith and Edie, the thing I kept thinking while watching the film was "where the hell is their family"? They were living in dangerous, unhealthy, unsafe conditions. How is it that Jackie O, married to one of the richest men on Earth (or the wealthy Bouvier family themselves) couldn't afford to get Edith and Edie a decent home? Or at the very least hire a part-time housekeeper or caregiver to come in and keep an eye on them both? It's shameful and a lasting disgrace to the entire Bouvier family.
Although this review may sound negative I would strongly recommend Grey Gardens to anyone who enjoys documentaries. Perhaps someday someone will come along and do a documentary about this documentary - bringing in the rich backstory (and afterstory) of the Beales and the whole subsection of Hamptons society in the 1970's.
At times this movie can seem exploitative, as neither woman seems in the best of mental health, but at other times, the movie is hard to look away from. "Little" Edie blames her mother for her current state, and her mother fires back that Edie was never going to be the success she thought she was. "Little" Edie often seems trapped in the past, focused on choices she made decades ago, and loves showing off pictures from her youth, where she clearly was a beautiful debutante. Her mother seems more resigned to her fate, to live out the rest of her life in terrible conditions. There are definite hints of the glamorous life both women once lead, from the pictures that show a happy family, to the grand portrait of the older Edie next to her bed. From what we see of the house, most of the rooms in it are empty, the walls are cracking and falling apart, and "Little" Edie leaves food in the attic for the racoons to feast on. And of course there are numerous cats running around.
At its heart, this documentary is incredibly sad. While neither woman seems particularly depressed by their lot in life, the squalor they live in is utterly awful. It's not particularly clear if there is even running water in the house, and you get the impression that they have essentially been abandoned by their family.
However, as a documentary, the film is a wonder to behold, and is highly recommended.
Interestingly, unlike the previous comment maker, i do not remember finding this film sad, or exploitative. On the contrary, the extraordinary relationship between the mother and daughter stuck in the mind as a testimony of great strength, honour and dignity. Ironic you may think, considering the squalor of their lives. Maybe it's because i live in Britain, where fading grandeur has an established language in the lives of old money, where squalor is often tolerated as evidence of good breeding; I saw it as a rare and unique portrayal of enormous spirit, deep and profound humour, whose utterly fragile and delicately balanced fabric gave it poise and respect. In a way i was sorry to see it being discussed as a 'cult'. Over the years, as it faded in my mind, it shone the brightest, above all others as a one off brilliant & outstanding televisual experience. It was such a deeply private expose, it seems odd to think of it becoming so public as to be a New York musical. But perhaps somewhere, the daughter will be amused by such an outcome. It is she who will have the last laugh maybe..(They made a musical out of her before you Jackie O' )
look at too eccentrics who basically have the right idea: forget
society and live in a delapidated house with no heating and a huge
brood of cats and raccoons, persuing their own interests rather
mundainly, all the while chattering at the camera.
Big Edie and Little Edie are the two crazies that the Mazles Bros.
have chosen to document. They seem like characters out of a
Fellini film, only stranger, if that makes any sense. Old Edie is
almost fully bedridden, a pile of papers, clothes and dirty dishes
growing around her. Little Edie is even more interesting. She
prances around the house, always wearing a baboushka-like
headdress around her head, completely covering her hair. We
never see her hair throughout the film, nor do we ever get a hint
that she still has much. At age fifty eight, though, she is still
beautiful and full of life.
In Grey Gardens, we get the sense that both of these women's
lives have become much less than what they once were. Little
Edie is probably the sadder of the two. While her mother, in her
earlier years, got married, made a family, lived luxuriously and
even made some recordings (the scene where, at 77, she sings
along with a recording of "Tea for Two" she made decades ago is
one of the films best scenes), Edie left her promicing career as a
model to take care of her ailing mother. At 58, she still longed to
find her prince charming. If anything Little Edie is still a little girl,
full of dreams of glamour and fame, and of domestic and romantic
bliss, that have yet to be fulfilled.
Highlights of the film include the opening moments, where Little
Edie explains her outfit to the camera, the "tea for two" sequence,
the birthday party, the climactic argument, the grocery deliver
scene, and the scene in the attic. The whole thing is incredibly
candid and unpretencious. And it's made all the more remarcable
since it's all real.
I suggest seeing Grey Gardens back-to-back with the Kenneth
Anger short Puce Moment. The Criterion DVD is $35.00, but it's
worth every penny.
I think you can also see in little Edie the fall of a class that sort of disappeared, you can hear it in old films of Jackie O too; people just don't talk like that anymore. I think as a documentary, it would have been interesting to get more information about how the home fell into disrepute, Old Edie at least still seems aware of what's going on to a certain degree; couldn't She see the once spectacular home disintegrating?
Yet the film's subject is the life the two women have constructed for themselves now, a real life Tennesse Williams one act. Well worth your time.
Mother and daughter living together in their decaying 28 room East Hampton mansion add a whole new meaning to the term "Shabby Chic". With innumerable cats, raccoons and opossums as roommates this Aunt and Niece of Jackie O. allowed filmmakers Albert and David Maysles into their mansion to film them living life day to day. The result is a hilarious, beautiful, sad and moving account of true love and anarchy rule.
The relationship between Big and Little Edie is a testament to the unbreakable bonds of love. And their lives an example of drive, determination and free-will. This movie has more to recommend it than I can put down into words. It is a rare experience that you must see for yourself.
I have to say that I don't post reviews or comments about movies, books or music unless they really move me. This film definitely affected me! In fact I am still disturbed by what I saw and the voices of these women are still burning my ears.
This film was not so much a documentary as it was a peek inside the life of two women who at some point must have been taken care of (and very well at that) by a whole host of people. People to help them clean, cook, dress etc. About 30 minutes into the film, it was obvious that Big Edie and Little Edie had once lived a life of luxury. At some point (and we are not given any information at all about their past) we can only assume that they were abandoned by Big Edie's husband and were left to their own devices to survive with very little money and even less skills to live on their own. In my experience, most documentary films move back and forth from present to past and back as a way of educating the viewer so we can understand what we are watching in some sort of context. This film and the women in it, give us no context at all. From the minute it starts, we are thrown into the world of the "Edies" and are given no information at any point about their past which can help explain the present, except through a few words while they look at old photographs. Not knowing the context can be interesting at times, but I found it hard to swallow in this case. I wanted to know what circumstances brought these two women to where they were.
I also found it difficult to understand a word that Big Edie said, and her voice was so unnerving and loud that I gave up trying to decipher anything she said. By the end, I felt like she was a bitter old woman, jealous and un-thankful of her daughter who obviously devoted years of her life to taking care of her Mother. Little Edie on the other hand was charming . A 56 year old who looked 40 and acted 17. She was so happy to have the attention of the camera and made the most of it in a funny and pathetically sad way. Smearing on her black eyeliner and drawing in her black eyebrows with a heavy hand, trying to re-claim her youth. She was a drop dead beauty in her day. It seems to me that her life was based on her looks, as though that was all she ever knew how to be... pretty. It's always disturbing to see women that attempt to deny what is natural when growing older by dressing in tight and revealing clothing and too much make-up.
This movie was an exercise in the intricate dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship who had been left with no skills to make it on their own set on the backdrop of a decaying filthy house with raccoons living freely among them and the cats pee and poop on the couch all while the Beale women are gloriously unaware of much of anything other than their own star potential thanks to their former beauty and the Bouvier name that Jacqueline Kennedy made so wonderfully famous.
I highly recommend this film if you want to be transported into another world. For me, it gave credence to the saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
Really, at first, we must say that this isn't really direct cinema, it is more cinema verité. The difference between the two is very slight, but it mainly is the fact that in this documentary, we are made to feel the presence of the Meysels brothers, and they do interact with the characters filmed. This as well makes it clear that it is not exploitation. The Meysels have been allowed in the house, and they are included in what is a very eccentric situation of a very eccentric household. And both Edith and Edie just love the idea of being filmed.
It would have been very disappointing had very been shown only a voice of God narration and shallow interviews. Here, we are given a full portrait of the madness of the house, a madness that does seem to go down well with both Edie and her mother Edith. Their house is a mess, litter and animals everywhere, faded colors and furniture all over the house, and the constant fights that are constant interactions of reality. These two people have lived with each other their whole life, and are not fighting in front of the camera because they want the attention, but rather because they can't help talking to each other this way. They know each other too well to hide their inner feelings, there is no need. In the end, though, even as they blame each other for their lives, they really love each other deeply. Edie says she doesn't want her mother to die, because she loves her very much, and Edith says that she doesn't want Edie to leave her because she doesn't want to be alone.
But the most interesting aspect of the film is that regardless of their old age, the two women can't help be girls. They cannot help being one the singer, the other the dancer. Exhibit all their artistic skills in front of their camera. When Edie asks David Meysels rhetorically "Where have you been all my life?" she is really very happy that she finally gets to show the whole world herself and her wonderful showgirls skills. A beautiful portrait of stylistic importance and a charm that is highly unlikely to be ever seen again, the way only the Meysels and few others could do.
Edith and Edie Beale were at the lowest point of their lives. The Maysles' kept showing how beautiful and full of potential they both were at one time in their lives, but for what purpose? The Beales had famous well-off relatives (though never really pointed out in the film.) So what? Lots of people on hard times have relatives that are much better off who would never lift a finger to help.
Edith and Edie lived in seclusion, removed from the rest of society, because they had little choice. They were just trying to hang on to a bit of the life they once had but would never regain. Why should this be considered to be a masterpiece in film making? It's nothing but a train wreck that everyone has slowed down for just to take a better look. It makes you feel dirty watching this thing through.
If the Glass Menagerie was fiction, Gray Gardens is sadly factual as a documentary with qualifications. If someone had cared enough to get medical help for these women, it would have been humane. Sadly, they did not and only the Maysels caught the aftermath. Exploitation, yes, interesting, yes, and morbid, absolutely. The Beales were disposable women in a society that did not like to acknowledge the skeletons in the closets of the rich and famous. The Maysel Brothers dragged the Edies out of the closet and before the public which makes reality TV seem mild. That these women were the relatives of the ubber wealthy Jackie Kennedy Onassis makes their situation even more pathetic. O no, Jackie O, the Edies are spooking the horses.
Both Big Edie and Little Edie are unforgettable and their utter lack of self-consciousness is worth witnessing. Both of them remain beautiful despite their encroaching age. They have a relationship that will chill any woman (and undoubtedly some men) and make you re- examine your own dealings with your mother. In an era when reality television and cinema is commonplace, it's fascinating to see the Mayleses' work from three decades ago, and realize what an impact the film must have had.
I echo what other posters have said: how were they allowed to slip into such squalor by their family? But beyond that, how could two people living in the 1970s be able to escape reality in such a complete fashion? Or were they simply considered too crazy to be helped? I would highly recommend watching this with the commentary track, which gave me additional insight into the film.
The Mayles Bros are not slouches and have a very good nack for cinematography and documentation (otherwise they would have not been involved in so many major documentaries). This film does itself justice by showing off that gift. What it doesn't do itself justice with is its exploitation of its subjects.
I know I won't get a lot of fans for saying such (true) statements, but it has to be said. Perhaps you'll understand my rational and frame of mind for my two controversial statements thus far by considering a few questions.
Why did the Maysles take footage of little Edie prancing around the house like a child? Why were these shots often in extreme close ups? Did these shots make you feel uncomfortable? Did the Beales seem in a clear frame of mind? Would you claim the Beales to be in a healthy mental condition? Were there shots of the Beales getting close to undressing or undressing? If the questions didn't get you thinking, my basic point is the Maysles knew better than to exploit a psychologically troubled mother and child. Framing it as an empathetic slice of life is a cover for compassion trolling and humiliation porn.
Someone said that truth is stranger than fiction, and the truth here is something to see. I really can't understand how a fictionalized account of this documentary is to be released this year. How can you improve on this? The aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy remove themselves from New York Society and hide in the Hampton's. In the process they become recluses and what is best described as "crazy cat ladies." They would have stayed hidden had not the city move to condemn the property for the filth and the subsequent rescue by Jackie. This film was done after that rescue. All during, you couldn't help but think, "how bad was it before?" It's a look at high society from the darker side, and it is utterly fascinating.