Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975)

I've always said, if given the opportunity to choose the method of my own execution, I would want to be asphyxiated by Linda Blair's thighs circa Roller Boogie. Well, after seeing Grey Gardens, I think might have found even better way to go. I know, you're probably thinking to yourself: Better than being asphyxiated by Linda Blair's thighs circa Roller Boogie? That's pure poppycock. But you won't feel that way once you get a gander at the substantial gams attached to Little Edie, the sexiest socialite/ex-fashion model/cabaret performer/shut-in this side of the Long Island Expressway. Of course, only a small number of people will be able to back up my claim that Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beale is the the sexiest socialite/ex-fashion model/cabaret performer/shut-in this side of I-495 because the film is not that well-known within the straight community. Oh, sure. A smattering of film buffs and Criterion Collection completists have seen it, but the documentary, directed by Albert and David Maysles (and edited by Ellen Hovde, Muffle Meyer and Susan Froemke - Ellen and Muffle also credited as directors), is what we in the cult movie racket like to call a "camp classic." Which is code for movies that gay men and drag queens like to watch over and over again. And the reason they like to watch it over and over again has nothing to do with the pleasing shape of Little Edie's middle-aged lady stems whilst ensnared in various shades of no-nonsense pantyhose. It's because Little Edie is a staunch character who plays by her own rules. And I'll tell you, there's nothing card-carrying Friends of Dorothy and their drag allies like more than a woman who is a S-T-A-U-N-C-H character.

However, since I'm beloved by all the aforementioned communities. I think it's safe to say that I'm the most qualified person to over-analyze this haunting documentary about two sane people living on the fringes of high society.

That's right, I said, sane. All right, I suppose Edith Bouvier Beale, Little Edie's elderly mother, could be viewed as a tad on the senile side. But after watching Little Edie do her thing for ninety minutes straight, I'm convinced she's a genius. Or, at the very least, one of the most interesting women who has ever lived.

After a brief forward that sheds some much needed light on the properties history, Little Edie, the first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, greets filmmakers, Albert Maysles and David Maysles, in "the garden" of their dilapidated 28-room mansion in East Hampton, New York. It's here that we get our first taste of Little Edie's unique personality when she explains (in awesome detail) the thought process that went into selecting her outfit/costume for the day.

Seemingly unaware that punk and disco were getting ready to explode over in New York City (the year is 1975), Little Edie still manages to chart her own fashion course. Pairing one-piece bathing suits with a wide array of head scarfs (towels and sweaters), Little Edie, despite her isolation, is a true original.

Actually, not knowing what's going on outside her demented play-world is probably what allowed Little Edie's unorthodox fashion sense to flourish.

Seriously, I've never seen anyone dress the way Little Edie does in this movie. She's a genuine fashion icon.

The brown army jacket-blue towel head scarf-gold broach look she wears during her staunch character monologue is so fashion forward, it hurts. I'm calling it: Steampunk fortune teller chic. If you poke around the extras on the Criterion DVD, you'll come across an interview with fashion designer Todd Oldham. And in that interview they show a couple of pieces that he designed that were clearly inspired by Little Edie's staunch character look.

You might have noticed earlier that I put the word garden in quotes earlier. Well, that's because Little Edie's nonchalant approach to gardening was not yet in vogue. Nowadays, Little Edie's jungle-like garden might get a few complaints here and there. But back in the mid-1970s, overly manicured lawns and bushes were all the rage. Meaning, Little Edie's natural garden becomes front page news for all the wrong reasons. To be fair to the 1970s garden fascists, the house itself is a bit of a mess. Okay, that's a huge understatement. The place is a dump. But look at Little Edie. Do you think someone who is this fabulous has time to dust? I don't think so.

Relieved that they're not being evicted (the health department threatened to kick them out if they didn't clean things up), Little Edie and her mother seem excited whenever the Maysles drop by to film them. Well, Little Edie seems excited. Her mother, on the other hand, just sits on her garbage-covered bed eating ice cream and cooking corn on the cob for The Marble Faun (Little Edie's nickname for the enigmatic Jerry the handyman).

Spending the last twenty or so years living with her mother in this house has obviously had a negative effect on Little Edie. Unhappy with the direction her life has gone, Little Edie seems filled with regret. But that doesn't dampen her spirit. And you can see that spirit on full display when she shows the Maysles her "best costume for the day" and when she openly longs to one day snag herself a reasonable Libra husband. She might be a 56 year-old woman living in a squalid hellhole surrounded by a sea of leaves, but her enthusiasm for life is infectious.

What isn't so infectious is the codependent nature of Little Edie's relationship with her mother. Which is on full display when Little Edie needs Mrs. Beale to sign the cheque in order to pay the gardener. And, yes, believe or not, the Beales have a gardener. Anyway, Mrs. Beale needs Little Edie to hire the gardener, but Little Edie needs Mrs. Beale to pay him.

While almost every nook and cranny of "Grey Gardens" is explored by the filmmakers, the bulk of the action takes place inside Mrs. Beale's yellow-walled vomit stain of a bedroom. Looking at old photo albums, singing songs and listening to Norman Vincent Peale sermons on the radio, the Beales bicker constantly as about a half a dozen cats sit and watch with cat-like indifference.

The aforementioned Jerry the handyman (who likes to drop by every now and then) and Little Edie's frustration over her path in life are the main points of contention. The latter because Little Edie feels threatened by Jerry (she thinks he's trying to come between her and her mother) and the former... Well, who isn't frustrated even a little by the way their lives have turned out? Except, Little Edie blames her mother for sabotaging her relationship with Eugene Tyszkiewicz, a man twenty years her junior (the fact Little Edie pronounces "Tish-Kyeh-Vich" correctly multiple times is sexy as hell).

Yet, despite all the animosity and resentment between them, the unhinged back and forth that Little Edie and Mrs. Beale repeatedly engage in is strangely compelling. I'd even go as far as to call it addictive. And the film only seems to get better upon repeat viewings. Which, as most people know, is an absolute  must if you want your movie to become a genuine cult classic. Which Grey Gardens is. You can see recent evidence of this status on IFC's Documentary Now (Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Fred Armisen play the Beales) and on Rupaul's Drag Race, where season five winner Jinkx Monsoon plays Little Edie in a parody of Match Game called "Snatch Game." Oh, and I just found out a Grey Gardens musical is currently being produced. 


  1. A Grey Gardens musical? Really? I bet it'll be a smash hit.

    I really liked your post. No, scratch that. I loved it. I always feel a little guilty watching (staring) at the Edies because I always wondered if they realized how they might appear on film.

    However, I almost cheered when you used the word "fabulous" to describe Little Edie. She truly is, in every way. She's very much her own person and doesn't care what's going on in the outside world. I admire that about her.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon with your refreshing look at Grey Gardens. A really great post.

  2. So great, loved reading this. Thanks for joining this blogathon!

  3. Wow, I had no idea this film was beloved by "Friends of Dorothy," but after your tremendous analysis of Little Edie, I get it. I've thought of it more as a freak show, a circus. She is absolutely bonkers and has no self awareness (okay, that might be true), but it never occurred to me that her fashion statements might be viable. I'm actually not a lover of this film, although I respect it as an important documentary. Having read this post, I may have to revisit it someday soon, as you recommended, just to see what I had missed.

    I'm glad you mentioned the Documentary Now! piece. Now that was inspired. I tried to watch the "sequel" with deleted scenes. The Beales of Grey Gardens was it? It was not for me.

    Thanks for participating. Really enjoyed your post! Next time hopefully there will be a good women's prison movie on Criterion for you to tackle.

  4. Thanks, guys. Thanks for allowing me to participate in such a prestigious event.

  5. Great review of such a random little film and certainly one I had no idea how to review, when I watched it so more power to you for this.

    I would love to get you on for an episode of the podcast (MBDS Showcase), but not been able to find a contact for you. Do you have an e-mail or something as would love to have you on as a guest.

    1. I don't do podcats. Just kidding. I have a fear of public speaking, so... yeah. Plus, I'm sick at the moment. *blegh*

    2. That's okay, but hope your feeling better :)

  6. You've captured so much of what I love about GREY GARDENS. At my lowest, I feel like it's a documentary of my own possible future. (I already have plenty of cats and some questionable get-ups.)

    What always gets me about these ladies is that they're really no more eccentric than a lot of wealthy women brought up to not have to do anything for themselves. They're well-educated and all, but they don't have the first clue about keeping house. Had the men in their lives stuck around, they'd have had completely different lives, and if they still had money, they'd look so amazing.

  7. You're a phenomenal writer and your blog is fantastic. Great read.

  8. plz add following movies comments
    blood tide 1985, vampire vixen from Venus, inseminoid, incognito,