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Despite the overwhelming cult following for this sad "documentary," I
must admit to having cordially loathed the film which struck our party
as far more a distressing exploitation piece than usefully informative.
That said, after seeing the magnificent stage musical drawn from it,
one can appreciate what the film might have been in surer hands.
One suspects that those many of us who actively suffered through the film may have had any campy delights its crueler fans enjoyed destroyed by the uncomfortable suspicion that too many of us - or those we know - are only a misstep or two away from the deplorable plight of the two mad women depicted who live in and contribute to a squalor they seem incapable of controlling or escaping.
The film leaves the viewer desperately wondering how any person could have slid to this level of degradation and, unlike the musical, offers no cautionary clues or explanations, only a horror show unredeemed by humor or insight.
This soul crushing flatness of the film makes the achievement of the stage version (hopefully to be filmed ultimately for cable) all the more remarkable. Act II is faithful in almost every detail to the film under discussion but strangely, setting the sad inmates' plight to music, raises the human tragedy to art. Even more important, this act is preceded by a fine Act I where we meet the women before their decent into mutually enabled madness, and are offered hints how their isolated purgatory came about. In short, everything which the FILM is lacking.
To the filmmakers' credit (or their successors), the excellent Criterion DVD release includes out-takes and bonus material that partially redeem the main film - behind the scenes photographs, interviews and commentary - filling in some of the blank spots the original editing consciously decided to omit in its drive for unadulterated horror and depression. They can't make the amateurish film itself satisfying, but they can at least make it a bit more comprehensible.
Ultimately though, it is only the remarkable stage piece inspired by and drawn from it by book writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie which raises the rating of the original GREY GARDENS above a single (generous) star.
"Grey Gardens" (1975): Documentary. In Jackie Kennedy/Onassis' family were a mother and daughter the wealthy might want to call "eccentric", but the rest of us might call "nuts". This is a visit to their once-nice, modest mansion on the ocean among the other newer mansions of the well-bred & breaded. Imagine never getting any further than maybe 100 yards from your home in 30 or 40 years, never doing a lick of maintenance, letting the ivy, rats, raccoons, weather, cats, and your own slovenly ways destroy the house, and you well you adjust as it all slowly happens, thinking it's normal. Your only company is your Mother/Daughter, you bicker constantly, while living in the past, and making up your own rules for the present. Anytime you think you (or a family member) is going nuts, rent this one, and set yourself at ease.
Fascinating yet unsettling look at Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter (Little Edie) aunt and first cousin to the late Jacquelyn Kennedy Onasis. They live in a rodent infested, rundown mansion which was considered a health hazard by the city. It becomes quite clear very quickly that these two are well past eccentric. Little Edie seems to be the most off as she acts with the mindset of a ten year old even though she is actually 53. The content is pretty much made up of two things. The first are the conversations were Little Edie lambastes Big Edie for driving away all her potential suitors and ruining her aspiring career as writer, actress, and dancer. These discussions usually become very rhetorical, nonsensical, and often times amusing. The second part consists of long bouts of attempted singing by both parties. Each of course thinks their singing is perfect and it's only the other who sounds bad. In one amazing scene Big Edie actually physically attacks Little Edie with her cane just to get her to stop her warbling. Very captivating yet one gets the feeling that their is some serious exploitation going on here and the subjects are just too far gone to know it. The filmmakers seem to treat this like a freak show at the circus, coming each day to record (and chuckle) at whatever bizarre behavior may come about. Ultimately this is a sad picture as it shows how the world has simply past these two by. Their hopes and dreams as decayed as the mansion they live in. Despite their bickering these two need each other more than ever. For without the other there would be no refuge from the loneliness. Most amazing line comes from Big Edie whose many cats relieve themselves throughout her bedroom. Her response to a complaint about the smell is simply unbelievable.
Grey Gardens is an unsettlingly intimate portrait of the daily lives of
Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie. Formerly upper-class socialites,
we now see this strange pairing proudly living in squalor in a
dilapidated East Hampton beach house. Cats roam through empty rooms and
plaster crumbles from the walls, while relics from their past fade into
The documentary has a home video feel as the camera lingers on the women, allowing them to create the film through merely living their lives. We are invited into their conversations, whereby they live out their past lives in dramatic prose, often speaking over each other in competitive excitement. The dynamic between the two women is bizarrely intriguing with their constant patterns of reminiscing, arguing, erratically shouting, reconciling and of course singing. This script that they've created initially gives us the impression of an old Hollywood movie, yet as we hear the same lines repeated, it becomes a depressing reminder of the mundane spiral that they've found themselves trapped in.
For me, what gives Grey Gardens its truly legendary status is the unforgettable character of Little Edie. She spends most of her day tortured by Grey Gardens and the psychological ennui its come to represent. Yet her enigmatic personality continues to shine through in her passionate bursts into song and witty observations. She has rightly become a cult icon, set apart by her ever-changing outfits made from bedspreads or curtains, her unique mannerisms and her memorable quotes ("I'm just pulverized by this latest thing"... "All I have to do is find this Libra man"). Her highly likable, free spirited character is the film's greatest attraction, while her lost potential is its greatest tragedy.
This documentary is disturbing in a way that you may not instantly realise while watching. Certain scenes have inexplicably lingered in my mind - raccoons crawling through their walls, Edie ecstatically dancing around the house to an old record and declaring her love for the cameraman, Edith passively observing the cat urinating on her portrait. However, beyond the uncomfortable Lynchian weirdness there is an undeniable heart at the films core, as we find that we cannot help but relate to these two remarkable women. We are simultaneously disgusted by their lifestyle and endeared by their tenacity to rebel against the status quo of prudish East Hampton, where as Edie remarks, "they can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday".
Grey Gardens is refreshingly original, clinging to the imagination and cementing the Beales' raggedy place in history.
An old mother and her middle-aged daughter, the aunt and cousin of
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, live their eccentric lives in a filthy,
decaying mansion in East Hampton.
Plenty has been written and said about the Kennedy family, and Irish political dynasties, but far less is out there about the Bouvier (?) family... and these odd black sheep of the family make me want to know more. I had never heard of them. How is that possible? This documentary has been floating around for forty years, and is really mandatory viewing for anyone who is interested in either Kennedy, the Hamptons or mental illness.
"Big Edie" died in 1977 and "Little Edie" sold the house in 1979 for $220,000 to Sally Quinn and her husband, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who promised to restore the dilapidated structure (the sale agreement forbade razing the house). "Little Edie" died in Florida in 2002 at the age of 84. According to a 2003 article in Town & Country, after their purchase, Quinn and Bradlee completely restored the house and grounds.
I had a very complicated reaction to "Grey Gardens," the Maysles
brothers' cult classic 1975 documentary. I felt by turns creeped out by
Edith and Edie, the mother and daughter at the film's center, and very
sorry for them. They rot away in a derelict and disgustingly dirty
mansion, swarmed by cats and other wild animals, bickering and
reminiscing about the lives each of them left behind, Edith's as a
singer and Edie's as a model and dancer. There shouldn't be anything
wrong with not realizing your ambitions when those ambitions lie in
artistic fields that only a very select few succeed in, yet the fact
that these two didn't replace their disappointments with anything else
turns them into grand guignol caricatures. Edie especially is like
Norma Desmond if Norma had never been successful in the first place. I
couldn't decide whether she was just deeply eccentric or actually
suffering from a mental disorder.
There's a scene where some people they know come over for Edith's birthday party, and the young female guest looks the entire time like she can't wait to get out of the house and away from the weirdness. That's exactly how I felt watching the film. Even though they volunteered to have their lives filmed, and despite the fact that Edie at least thrives on the attention, I couldn't help but feel a little shamed being a voyeur. The film is like rummaging through someone else's dirty underwear.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The documentary Grey Gardens, directed by the Maysles brothers was a groundbreaking installment of the cinema verite film movement. Edith and Edie Beale were eccentric people, and the Maysles took advantage of that with them being the subjects of Grey Gardens. There is no topic or lesson to be taught to the audience, rather it is like a peek into the daily life of of two co-dependent, sheltered women inside their dirty, dilapidated mansion.The heart of the film is the toxic relationship between a mother and daughter. Edie constantly confides to the camera that she "can't take another winter here in the country" and yet doesn't leave, and hasn't for twenty-five years. Her mother said "You can't have freedom when you are being supported", which resonated as a driving factor for why Edie is trapped in her forlorn life. Edie is stuck in the past, and obsessed with being famous and beautiful. She revels in the camera's attention, as if she finally got her big break that she gave up years ago to care for her mother. Their bickering and backwards conversations flanked by piles of filth and feral animals is sickening, but a depressingly true reality for these women obsessed with what could have been.
This is one heck of a disturbing movie. I'm aware that Little Edie is
quite a cult figure with a loyal following even years after her death,
but I'm not sure how someone like her would generate "fans" per se. If
she wasn't mentally ill when she moved back in with her mother, she
certainly was by the time the Maylses showed up, and her narcissistic
mother is surely the one who punched her ticket to the funny farm.
I understand the Beales were delighted with the film when it was screened for them. Anyone who's okay with being portrayed the way those two women are in this movie is not playing with a full deck, period. One half-naked and screeching "Tea For Two"; the other with her skirt on upside down and an unidentifiable piece of clothing pinned to her head marching to a rah-rah fight song nope, no adult women I know would be happy about ending up on film looking like that. I'm acquainted with some poor housekeepers who don't feel comfortable letting repairmen in the house but they don't have huge holes in their walls that raccoons are coming and going through, and they don't have rooms piled waist-high with empty tin cans. This is a problem, and hardly anything to admire.
Personally, I was torn between a certain degree of pity and outright revulsion, and I found it very hard to finish the film (took me 2 nights; I needed a break). It's sad that the husband/father and sons/brothers retreated, but who could entirely blame them? In those days I doubt there were the safety-nets in place that are available now; maybe the only thing the men of the family could think of to do was step away and go on with their own lives.
To the reviewer who mentioned Miss Havisham: spot on! In living color and stereo!
I'm glad for the sake of the once-beautiful home that someone bought it and restored it.
The documentary "Grey Gardens" is now retrospectively regarded as the
inception of what would later be termed "reality" programming, and as
such, does contain some element of exploitation. The mother and
daughter team featured here, former socialites cast adrift from their
well-heeled pasts decades earlier, can both be described as
'eccentric', but that's the polite term. They co-exist in a once-grand,
now crumbling, trash-strewn, urine-stained oceanside mansion where they
exhibit very questionable survival skills. Their relative sanity is
also constantly in question. The film, in every sense of the term, is
the proverbial car wreck you cannot look away from.
Perhaps it wouldn't seem this way had it made some effort to give the viewer a more focused glimpse of who they once were and the circumstances which brought them to their squalid, delusional situation. Therefore, the viewer would be better able to put some needed perspective on what they are watching. There apparently exists some history of family members' attempts to remedy their plight, but we're only made aware of them through random shots of newspaper clipping which are never elaborated on.
Instead one has to rely on the often incoherent ramblings of two women attempting to tell their own skewed versions of their lives, almost always while stepping on each others' conversations. Overlayed onto this are episodic bursts of anger, regret, sorrow, seemingly constant bickering, and unintended whimsy. The few 'outsiders', briefly seen, don't get to add their perspectives either, even though they likely have an incredible amount they could tell us...and they seem to want to.
This is a fascinating story, to be sure, but we don't really develop any feeling of sympathy for these seemingly deranged women because there's no foundation in which to anchor any emotion, making the proceedings more pointless than they ought to be.
"Grey Gardens" is a riveting documentary about a mother and daughter
who live in their deteriorating home, having little contact with
This is a documentary in the true sense of the word, where the filmmaker does little more than document, without intent to impose a point of view. The camera merely follows the pair of women through their daily routines. On the other hand, it is impossible for the filming to not influence the behavior of the subjects, especially with Edith and Edie, who seemingly love to perform for the camera, and who enjoy having the crew around--probably because they offer a welcome interruption to their relative loneliness.
The women live with a multitude of cats. They even feed the raccoons that have breached the interior walls of the rotting mansion. Mother and daughter interact with each other as if the daughter, Edie, was a young girl. They might bicker sometimes, but each is the other's link to the past, a shared history, memories of better days.
The result is reminiscent of Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations", living as much in the past as the present.
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