“GREY GARDENS”–the documentary as a cult film


Cult Films

Amos Lassen

The Criterion Collection has released a double DVD set of “Grey Gardens” and “The Beales of Grey Gardens” and what is interesting about these two films is that they have achieved cult status among gay men, much like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Sordid Lives”.

But that is where any comparison ends.

Both of these movies are documentaries and are about the lives of Big and Little Edie Beale, cousins of Jackie O., who chose to live reclusive lives. Their mansion in the Hamptons is a mess—replete with disarray and disorder. But what endears this movie is that it is a throwback, albeit a shabby throwback to the myth of Kennedy’s “Camelot”. The movie established Little Edie as a queen of philosophy and a fashion icon. She is an independent woman whose every doing were influenced by and infused with the presence of her mother, Big Edie Beale. They spent their lives together until the death of Big Edie. They were aristocrats by name, poor by lack of money and it is the dichotomy that makes “Grey Gardens” so fascinating.

I must say that “Grey Gardens” is, for lack of a better word, fabulous. The real life characters have lives that exceed any imaginings one may have. The beauty of the film is that it is the characters that shape the film and they carry the theme that “truth is best presented through metaphor”. The Beales were born into the upper class at the time when there was an American aristocracy but aside from their birthrights they have created their own personas. There is a singer and there is a dancer and hard times could not break their spirit. We see their real life, the shambles of a mansion in which they live is the epitome of their station in life. But that is superficial, the real story of the Beales is their attitude toward life, their memories of the past—their beaus, their lost money, their regrets, their sense of family. The passing of time has not been kind to the Beales but they have overcome it with self-expression. The two are extraordinary women and the Maysles brothers who edited the film and partially directed it have dome a brilliant job.

The Maysles brothers simply recorded their several visits to the Beales when Edith Bouvier was nearly eighty and film the reclusive twosome. Little Edie, once married but now separated from her husband had been singer and a member of high society. She had returned to the Hamptons twenty-four years earlier to be cared for by her mother. The women speak directly to the camera, at times talking above each other, going from the present to the past and back and forth.

The best word I can use to describe this film is “surreal”. The woman passed eccentricity and appear to be on the verge of completely losing “it”. They reveal their humanity in the strangest of ways and the film is on the edge of exploitation as it looks at the Beale women. Under the tables of the mansion are empty gin bottles, cats having the run of the house, raccoons live in the walls. Edie and Edith are haunting figures. Their lives seemed to be lived in one room only of their large home. The scene of the cat relieving itself on the bed and being dismissed by Edith with “I thrive on it (the smell” was heartbreaking.  There is a lot going on the film and all of it is fascinating. The co-dependent women maintain a passive-aggressive arrangement for living.

Edie never leaves the home and rarely sees anyone. She was once beautiful and classic, a debutante who, for no reason, still watches her weight. She still has her beauty and her mannerisms are of a young society belle. The peek into the world of these two women is wonderful and compelling, sad and fabulous.

The aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis really do not have a life but a circus. When you view the portraits of them as young women which hang on the walls of their dilapidated home you see the splendor that once was. They dress outlandishly and are still beautiful women. They way they eat is strange—on fine china with plastic utensils. To them, time has no meanings, they have no clocks and their relationships with men are extremely strange. When Edie declares that “the hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility” you wonder if she is sane since neither woman has taken any responsibility for anything. As witty as this film is, it is also strange, bordering upon bizarre.

“The Beales of Grey Gardens” was made in 2006, some 30 years after the original film was shot. It is an entirely new film which was assembled from unused footage from the first movie. An interesting note about the second film is that there is mention of Jackie O. asking Onassis to help the Beales in renovation “Grey Gardens” mansion. The first film deals more with the pride of the women while the second movie seems to concentrate on the desolation of the women. Both films are important as they show how to promote understanding of people and how to find deterrents to both anger and hate, With both films the Beales’ secrets are out to the world and what could have been very glum, grim and depressing is instead a celebration of life.

A new Broadway musical, based on the film, is currently “packing them in”. It looks like the cult status of the Beale “girls” will be around for a while.

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