Friday August 14, 1998
One of the strangest documentaries ever, "Grey Gardens" if anything looks stranger today than when it was originally released in 1976.
Filmed by Albert and David Maysles, "Grey Gardens" is a prime example of what the brothers called their "direct cinema" technique, a cinema verite approach that had the Maysleses turn the camera on and then, at least in theory, retreat to the status of indifferent flies on the wall.
Other direct-cinema landmarks by them include 1968's "Salesman" and "Gimme Shelter," the 1970 examination of the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Northern California's Altamont Speedway. But "Grey Gardens" is the most disturbing, and not necessarily for the right reasons.
The title comes from the 28-room house in out-of-the-way East Hampton, N.Y., that's inhabited by the film's singular protagonists, 79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale, known as Big Edie, and her 57-year-old daughter, Edith Beale Jr., not surprisingly called Little Edie. If the name Bouvier sounds familiar, it should: Big Edie was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' aunt and Little Edie her cousin.
A montage of newspaper stories at the film's opening provides the audience with a kind of back story: Before filming began, the Suffolk County Health Department nearly evicted the two women when an inspection revealed the Kennedy kin to be living with numberless cats in an ambience described as "garbage-ridden, filthy."
What the Maysles brothers discovered after the house was cleaned up was two women coexisting in a sad, querulous, painfully symbiotic relationship in a falling-apart mansion they almost never leave. The two Edies bicker almost constantly, trading recriminations and taking turns bossing each other around in posh East Coast accents.
Old photographs reveal both women to have been spectacular beauties when they were younger. Big Edie was a popular singer in her youth (a pleasant version of "Tea for Two" is offered as proof), but at a certain point her husband left, her life collapsed and she insisted that her daughter return to East Hampton to care for her.
A fearsome eccentric who uses binoculars to read a bathroom scale and always covers her head in strange, cowl-like turbans, Little Edie claims to love only three things ("the Catholic Church, swimming, dancing"); taking care of her mother does not make the cut.
Alternately whining and conspiratorial, Little Edie's conversation is largely a litany of regrets. She was on the verge of her big break in show business, she says, when her mother called her home; she hates the country, and she's still furious about the highhanded way her mother dismissed the numerous suitors she claims were after her hand in marriage.
Since both women are clearly strangers to conventional notions of reality, the question of who has the most accurate memory about the past is impossible to answer, and this film is philosophically opposed to actually gathering hard information. More to the point is wondering why anyone who isn't dazzled by the connection these two women have to the Kennedys would want to sit through a minute examination of an unhappy dysfunctional relationship.
Adding to the unpleasantness of this film is the way the Maysleses (working with editors Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke) seem to subtly encourage the women to act out even more than usual. The bland comments the Maysles brothers utter on camera are the noises you make when you don't want to disturb people who are behaving crazier than they're aware of. Little Edie, in particular, is given to odd forms of flirtation, saying at one particularly surreal point, "Darling David, where have you been all my life?"
Even though the two women professed to be delighted with the documentary once it came out, it's difficult to watch "Grey Gardens" today without feeling that they were taken advantage of to feed an appetite that is intrusive and voyeuristic.
The best possible face that can be put on things is that Big and Little Edie (the mother died two years after the film was released, the daughter is still living) made an unconscious, unsavory, mutually advantageous bargain with the filmmakers: Make us famous and we'll return the favor.
In retrospect it's clear that both parties lived up to their parts; only the audience got shortchanged.
Grey Gardens, 1998. Unrated. A film by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke, released by Rialto Pictures. Cinematographers Albert Maysles & David Maysles. Editors Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke. Sound Lee Dichter. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun