Meet Big and Little Edie Beale-high society dropouts, mother and daughter, reclusive cousins of Jackie O.-thriving together amid the decay and disorder of their ramshackle East Hampton mansion. Five years after Gimme Shelt... more »er, the Maysles unveiled this impossibly intimate portrait of the unexpected, an eerie echo of the Kennedy Camelot, which has since become a cult classic and established Little Edie as fashion icon and philosopher queen.« less
""Grey Gardens" is a one-of-a-kind documentary exploring a mother-daughter relationship. These aren't just two anonymous people though; instead, the film chronicles Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, "Little Edie," who just happen to be the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles, initially intended the film to be about Jackie's sister, Lee Radziwill. However, after being introduced to Edith and Little Edie by Lee, they decided to shift the focus.
What makes these two women so interesting? First, they live in a giant decaying mansion (the titular "Grey Gardens") in luxurious East Hampton. The family was extremely wealthy at one time, until Edith divorced and lost most of her money. She apparently stayed in the 28-room Grey Gardens mansion despite a lack of money for upkeep. The women show pictures of themselves from years earlier, and they were obviously beautiful society scions. However, they became more and more isolated from society as they hunkered down into their mansion At one point, the mansion was even raided by East Hampton officials, who wanted to evict the pair due to the unsanitary living conditions. Jackie subsequently helped them clean up the mansion.
All of this action, though, occurs before the film starts in 1975 (some of the back story is presented in pictures and newspaper stories). In fact, in the documentary, not much new happens: the women continue their bizarre existence in the mansion and argue. They argue a lot. Every conversation is filled with their remembrances of better times, when Little Edie was desired by wealthy men and Edith carried on an affair with a pianist. This life is so far removed from their current surroundings, and their regrets about that disparity quickly surface. Apparently, Little Edie had been living in NYC in the 1950s, before her mother had her come back home to take care of her. This arrangement was only supposed to be for a short time, but 24 years later, they are still at Grey Gardens and arguing.
Although the movie focuses on relatives of a very famous woman, the themes of living in the past and experiencing regret are so universal. The women have in many ways a typical mother-daughter relationship, but it's also so atypical. Quite simply, they live a rather deluded existence, arguing so passionately about past events as though it still mattered or was in the present. Neverthless, the women are fascinating on so many levels, including Edie's fashion style. Throughout the film, Edie models numerous outfits that she's created, all accompanied by a turban. Whether she's bald or just loves turbans is never explored. Funnily, Edie's bizarre style has become somewhat of an ironic fashion inspiration; the DVD even features Todd Oldham explaining that he has actually used Edie's fashion sense while designing a number of outfits!
Some people have criticized this documentary for a variety of reason, including calling the filmmakers exploitative. I don't think that the Beales were exploited - they are both intelligent although somewhat deluded women and likely understood the implications of participating in this filming. Others have said that the material is somewhat suspect - are the Beales "worthy" of a documentary? That's a judgment call each viewer will need to make. I enjoyed it - the film is like nothing else I've ever seen. Although the Beales are deluded at times, their relationship is like a Tennessee Williams play sprung to life! I wasn't able to turn away, and I know that these women will stick with me for a long time. Most highly recommended.
The DVD extras include original trailers and a fascinating commentary track featuring the Maysles and their associates. They fill in many of the blanks about the film. Fortunately, the DVD includes subtitles, as the women constantly talk over each other during their arguments. You needn't miss a single word of this hypnotic documentary. "
Searching for Grey Gardens
Serena Williams | Las Vegas, NV United States | 01/28/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This stellar portrayal of two women, a mother and daughter, who spend their days in a run down house and are ironically aunt and cousin to Jackie O, displays documentary film-making at its very best. Although much has been said about the film, the focus always tends to emphasize the sordid living conditions that Edith Bovier Beale and her unmarried daughter, Little Edie inhabit, in an old estate in Easthampton, New York. Their house has been condemned by officials in Easthampton, and they live with cats and raccoons, but they don't give a damn about it. They are virtual recluses in their upscale community, "full of nasty Republicans." However, the film is not about the squalor that most of us would balk at in conventional situations. Their surroundings are only a backdrop and metaphor for the lost opportunities, and isolation that the women are subjected to as societal outcasts. Whether this is by choice, or due to their eccentricities is a mixed bag, but "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" are such magnetically charged women, it is fair to say that they are their own superstars within the world they have created.Much of the film's pathos is magnified by the mother and daughter relationship. Little Edie, once a gorgeous, brilliant young woman feels she has been forced to sacrifice her life and a potential career as an entertainer, to look after her mother. Big Edie, once a veritable beauty in her day, was written out of her father's will for her aspirations to become a singer, and after her divorce retreated to her sea-side estate to spend the rest of her days. It is apparent that both women are extremely co-dependent, but in spite of their inherent needs to look after each other, Little Edie is full of resentment over the arrangement. She points this out again and again, letting us know that when she is with her mother, she doesn't feel like a woman, but rather a little girl. However, both have clearly been dominated by strict, critical male figures in their pasts, and they do enjoy a sense of freedom and independence in their solitude, even if it comes at the expense of their abilitiy to inhabit the outside world. Little Edie insists throughout the film, that she must get out and move to New York, "My days at Grey Gardens are limited" she tells the Maysles' camera crew, who record every nuance with objectivity, and a keen eye for descriptive detail of both women and their amazing story.This is a complex narrative, and it unfolds with intelligent, and often hilarious dialogue from both Big and Little Edie. Little Edie's sense of fashion is truly "revolutionary" and has been copied and imitated by several designers. Big Edie is more staid, she has "had her cake, eaten it, chewed it, masticated it" while Little Edie emerges as a thwarted Goddess, who feels she never even got a bite of the cake, so to speak. She proclaims herself to be the "greatest dancer in the world" yet alone in the house with her mother, their is no other audience for her to creatively conquer. We watch her, and we are captivated by her, and we accept what she tells us, because she is so emotive and honest.Fiction could never fully capture the beauty and the sadness that this film evokes. Although we love to laugh with it, it is also a poignant epic, magnifying moments in Big Edie and Little Edie's lives with uncanny depth and awareness of the subjects. It is simultaneoulsy lyrical, funny and sad. Those who view it and do not understand that this is a masterpiece, are missing the point of this work. And what is that point? I believe it circles around the choices that are made for us, the choices we do make, and the choices we don't make, and how our fates are are affected by these events.I give "Grey Gardens" six stars, and I hope you enjoy it. It is a film that can be viewed several times, and there is always something new to discover every time it is screened."
"I'm not ready; I have no makeup on... but things are gettin
Jay Dickson | Portland, OR | 03/17/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The Maysles Brothers' famous 1975 documentary of a former society mother and her grown daughter (both former cousins of Jackie Onassis and both named Edie Beale) falling to pieces in their similarly-dilapidated East Hampton mansion has acquired a consider cult following over the years due to the Miss Havisham qualities of its subjects, who once both were great wealthy beauties and have fallen to bare subsistence living (and who both seem clearly mentally ill). The Maysles have been greatly criticized for showcasing these women as circus oddities, but as little Edie makes clear in a tape-recorded interview included in this beautiful Criterion Collection edition, both women loved the chance to have the attention given to them; the film also made it possible for little Edie to follow her dream of moving to NYC to work, albeit briefly, as a cabaret star.
But it would also seem wrong simply to characterize the two women as free spirits doing their own thing and being fabulous, as many of the films' cultists are mistakenly wont to do: GREY GARDENS at times seems a genuine hell for the women as well as for the viewer, who must endure the mother and daughter occasionally shrieking menacingly at one another over one another's words. And Little Edie seems like a lost fourth sister from Chekhov, bemoaning her lost chances at matrimony and escaping to the big city. But both women seem intelligent despite their moments of mental confusion, and Little Edie's editorializing during a Dr. Norman Vincent Peale radio broadcast (one of the film's highlights) shows her sharpness as well as her wicked sense of humor. And it is precisely the discomfort that the film occasions -- its refusal to sentimentalize these down-but-not-yet-out society survivors -- that makes it seem so memorable, and such a comment on the American tendency to trash the past even while nostalgically clinging to its wreckage."
Plein Jane | new england | 12/31/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"So many of Shakespeare's greatest plays invite us to examine the richly fascinating lives of the mentally ill, that we can hardly call the Maysles exploitative or the many admirers of this work voyeurs. I think that lets a lot of us who love this film off the hook all the way around. However, no one who knows anything about schizophrenia can fail to see that Little Edie is obviously schizophrenic. At one point she actually says that she was diagnosed "schizoFREEEnic" by somebody "in the Village" but denies that this could possibly be true, and that her "dual nature" is in fact due to her zodiac sign.
Her rolling gait, the garrulous, often self-aggrandizing speech, the whispered conspiracy theories, the exaggerated facial expressions, the sudden outbursts of temper -- and so many more symptoms which are so painfully obvious to those who have lived or work closely with schizophrenic individuals, clue us in to the true nature of her relationship with her mother which goes way beyond things hinted at or openly stated in the dialogue. It becomes increasingly clear to the viewer, especially after watching The Beales of Grey Gardens, which is included in this two DVD set, that apparently Little Edie was not managing well living on her own in the city in 1952, so her mother had her return to Long Island ostensibly to care for her. Big Edie's devotion was such that I believe she was willing to appear less than capable of taking care of herself to protect Little Edie's dignity as much as she could. Neither woman was physically able or accustomed to taking care of the huge house, and as their fortune disappeared, the mansion sank into a state of appalling disrepair. The bare mattresses they sleep on are unspeakably filthy, yet Little Edie's brother continues to pay the taxes on the place without ever coming to see them. Only the most minimal provision is made for their needs, keeping them essentially in a holding pattern in the house. They can't afford to move somewhere else, and they can't afford to maintain the place. The reasons for this are only hinted at in the film by Little Edie rolling her eyes.
As is so often the case among victims of schizophrenia, LE's wit and intelligence are undiminished by her illness and only make her circumstances seem sadder still. Her outlandish get-ups -- often featuring tablecloths and towels -- fashion forward as they may have been, clearly arise from her lack of wearable clothing. Big Edie, who can barely walk and has a terrible cough, is often seen sitting around barely covered with a blanket, with apparently little or nothing on underneath, yet sitting thus, she sings in a full-throated soprano, still, with near-total recall of lyrics and snatches of poetry. The astonishing flair with which Little Edie assembles her jaunty ensembles says a great deal about the resiliency of the human spirit. Perhaps only in Shakespeare do we find a study of two utterly tragic characters as compelling as what the Maysles captured on film that year.
Because this film is such a powerful work of art, the truths which are at the core of the Beales' situation are both complex and universal. The photographs of each of the women in their youths reveal that they were both stunning beauties who had every advantage of birth, education and wealth. Big Edie was the sister of "Black Jack" Bouvier, Jacqueline Kennedy's own father, so Jackie and Little Edie were first cousins. That Jackie and Lee could have done a great deal more for them than see to it that Grey Gardens got a new roof and some other basic structural repairs (after the highly publicized "raid" by local officials) is an uncomfortable indictment of women who are considered America's royalty. Indeed, at the height of the Bouvier sisters' international jet-setting phase, their aunt and cousin were both ill, underfed, underclothed and underhoused, sleeping on filthy mattresses with no sheets. This is where the notion that this film depicts two quarrelsome free spirits living exactly as they liked and thumbing their noses to their high-society rellies breaks down. Even free spirits like clean sheets and a shower once in awhile. To be fair, I have read that Lee Radziwill did help out with the grocery bill from time to time, but the scene with Little Edie dumping a bag of catfood and a loaf of bread on the attic floor for their sickly, mangy animals to help themselves to is a parallel that is pretty hard to miss.
Despite the outrage the viewer feels on behalf of these improbably plucky and endearing heroines, the film certainly has its luminous moments which lift it far above the cliche-ridden news story it could so easily have been. On a golden September afternoon, Little Edie reels down the beach toward the surf, then suddenly dives through a wave, and waterborne, becomes as lithe and graceful a swimmer as you might imagine she was at 16, and every bit as beautiful; her years of suffering and the "mistakes" she alludes to are washed into the sea and we glimpse for a moment the woman she might have been, or actually the woman she is, but without the illness, and it is a transcendant moment of peace in the film, a blessed break from the constant hammering and bickering dialogue. Sheltered if not exactly pampered, Little Edie is youthful, coquettish, rebellious, and sometimes downright naughty as a woman can be at 56. By the standards of 1975, she was in fact a senior citizen, but watching her today (when it's said the 50s are the new 30s) strutting and dancing and flirting shamelessly with both the camera and the Maysles, she has clearly slipped past the boundaries of time, a genuinely agless spirit transcending the most depressing circumstances with a cheerful wave of her flag, optimism for her future, and a knowing wink to the camera. And for some inexplicable reason, we can't help smiling back.
This is an astonishing film which raises some very disturbing questions about human dignity and grace -- and forces us to ask ourselves some pretty disturbing questions, too. What is madness? Why are we watching this film (again?)? How can it be that we can be so disturbed, so angered, so depressed, and so uplifted all at the same time? If Shakespeare had been a filmmaker, this is the film he would have made. I think I'll go watch it again."
A Brialliant Film About Two Staunch Characters
Adam Patrick Whitehurst | Chapel Hill, NC USA | 10/09/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Whatever anyone says, this is not a film about the degradation of high society or the underbelly it's ashamed of. To label it as such demeans the Beales, dismisses them, relegates them a heap of mere eccentrics, renders them caricatures. If 'Grey Gardens' is a tragedy or cautionary tale, its moral points to society's abadonment of, and disdain for, the free spirit. This is an overlying circumstance to the film, though, and not its most important facet.Central to its absolute brilliance are the Beales themselves, women who may be unconventional, but are certainly not crazy. Here, one finds a mother-daughter relationship more complex, more emotionally alive and resonant than anything Tennessee Williams could have ever imagined. And it falls out effortlessly. A great documentary, unlike wildlife photography, always follows a plot. Normally, an event imposes a plot, or the film is force-fit by its filmakers to arc along a certain trajectory. 'Grey Gardens,' on the other hand, has relatively little action, yet by the time its denouement arrives, the entire narrative has laid itself bare and is as palpable and exciting as any fabrication. Yet it's real. A one-two punch. Only in something so unscripted can you really feel the impact of such moments as Little Edie's misterpretation of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" (which, in fact IS a poem about regret) or Big Edie's line, "When are you gonna learn, Edie? You're in this world, you're not out of the world?" (perfectly ironic).The film is an opportunity for Big and Little Edie to rehash their lives, to tell their stories, and they relish the chance. The conflict (layers upon layers of it) derives from each attempting to tell her own story as she remembers it, or as she would have liked it to be. Naturally, they contradict each other, and what plays out is a shake-down, a reckoning, the leveling of memory to its composite dust, reality. Anyone who criticizes the film as exploitative of its subjects clearly doesn't observe the mutual affection between the Beales and the Maysles, and doesn't recognize how thrilled the women are to make a record of their lives. The movie may be uncomfortable to watch, but whose untempered emotions *wouldn't* makes us squirm? Outside of society, the Beales aren't reigned in by a need to appear as anything other than what they are. If at times they go over the top in representing themselves, who can blame them? One cannot dismiss how eloquently they often express themselves. Their candor, charm, and wit are always forefront.I first saw 'Grey Gardens' several years ago, thanks to a roommate who owned a very grainy, very sub-par bootleg. How wonderful that it's finally been given a treatment it deserves. The DVD transfer is excellent, and the extras (particularly the priceless interview snippets between Little Edie and Kathryn Graham) are treasures.Bottom line, 'Grey Gardens' is an immensely complex portrait of two women and their relationship to one another. Whether they are at each others throats or presenting a uniform front against a society they feel has abused them, the Beales absolutely shine. After seeing it a dozen times at least, I am still digesting it"