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Grey Gardens (1975)


Documentary Film
Runtime: 100 minutes
Color: Color
Sound Mix: Mono
Language: English
Country: USA
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Release Date: 09/27/75(premiere at NYFF), 02/19/76(limited release)

Grey Gardens is a documentary offering nothing more than the beautiful personalities of Big and Little Edie Beale. I found this 1975 documentary almost ten years ago in one of my favorite video stores. Back then, it was a cult classic and it seemed that few people knew of this bittersweet saga. The story has recently been taken up by HBO and made into a feature with much acclaim. What I am writing about here refers to the original documentary by Albert and David Maysles. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and there is no comparing with this candid look at the life of these two women.

“Big Edie” is Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter is Edith Bouvier Beale, or “Little Edie”. What once had been a mansion, you now see as a decrepit hovel filled with garbage, cats and other wildlife. “Little Edie” runs out to meet the Maysles with a big smile and an aristocratic East Hampton accent. From the very beginning I fell in love with Little Edie.

Little Edie was the first cousin to Jackie (Bouvier Kennedy) Onassis. The Beale family was rich, well-connected and definitely high-society in their time. Some disappointments are revealed from these mostly tight-lipped women. A divorce, failed attempts at stardom, and endless and naïve optimism resulted in these well-bred women not able to provide for themselves.

As their wealth crumbled around them, they relied on each other. They fought all day and night about the most inane things. The house had no running water, no television, nothing. The two women entertained themselves with singing to old records and sitting in the lovely Hampton sun. The ladies were once the most beautiful and popular in all New York. Their minor successes and memories are cluttered around them in a single room as they share their tinned tuna with feral cats.

Little Edie is especially endearing as she explains the reasoning behind her outfits: “This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt and then you can pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape. So I think this is the best costume for today.” You can find “Little Edie” re-appropriating different pieces of her wardrobe on different days. One day she wears a skirt, the next day it is on her head with a brooch.

The special look you get into these women gave me mixed feelings. I started to feel like a voyeur and wondering if my enjoyment came from their misfortune. The Beales are a unique mix of pride, humor and strength. I felt like, if they invited me into their home, then I must be welcome. I kept wishing that some of their famous family would come to their rescue and restore their former glorious place in the Hampton society.

Grey Gardens is a hovel, an eyesore and unfit for humans to live in. Several times the County Health Department tries to condemn the house for its horrendous conditions. It seems that every time they are just about to be kicked out, just enough money comes in to save their house. The new improvements are put into their house and “Little Edie” is still feeding the raccoons in the house loaves of bread.

I love this movie for the spirit and fun the Beales show. They are adorable and sad at the same time. Grey Gardens is a timeless classic that will make you laugh, cry and dance with the indomitable Beales.

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