Offering an unvarnished look at the freakish lives of two people existing on the fringes of society, Grey Gardens is a painful documentary from which many people derive pleasure, because Grey Gardens is a wellspring of quotable kitsch. In fact, many fans consider Grey Gardens a black comedy, though there’s nothing amusing about the facts behind the picture. In the early ’70s, a series of sensational magazine stories revealed that two relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were living in the disgusting wreck of an old Long Island mansion. Jackie O’s aunt, “Big Edie” Beale, was in her late ’70s and enduring the ravages of old age, while her daughter, Jackie O’s first cousin “Little Edie” Beale, was in her mid-’50s and apparently suffering from some type of mental illness. After the initial rush of embarrassing publicity, Jackie O helped the Beales financially but did not persuade them to vacate their mansion, known as Grey Gardens.
Thereafter, documentarian siblings Albert and David Maysles received permission to film the Beales in their squalid environment, resulting in this celebrated movie. The Maysles took a decidedly verité approach, letting their cameras run as the Beales went about their grim daily routines, eating cat foot and rummaging through the excrement and garbage strewn around Grey Gardens. Raccoons slip through holes in the walls, standing water festers, and the whole building seems close to collapsing. Yet amid this horror show, the Maysles found an unexpected source of vitality: Little Edie, a delusional optimist who runs off at the mouth about her (bizarre) fashion choices and the glory of saner times.
Even though we, as viewers, feel for Little Edie because she seems unable to recognize how far she’s fallen, there’s no denying she’s a compelling presence. In one of the movie’s most frequently quoted scenes, Edie explains why she’s assembled an outlandish outfit: “You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape, so I think this is the best costume for today.” Big Edie, meanwhile, is proud and sharp despite being a near-invalid, so the interactions between this strong-willed matriarch and her mercurial daughter are consistently arresting. Watching them bicker like any relatives forced into codependency makes their dynamic relatable even though their living conditions are unimaginable. Grey Gardens is compelling stuff, though for some viewers (myself included) it smacks of freak-show exploitation rather than simple anthropological curiosity.
The cult of Grey Gardens expanded significantly in the late 2000s, when this documentary was adapted into a Broadway musical and an Emmy-winning HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. Additionally, the Maysles assembled unused footage from the original film into a feature-length companion piece titled The Beales of Grey Gardens, which was released in 2006.
Grey Gardens: GROOVY