The Quarantine Stream: The Crumbling Gothic Curiosity of 'Grey Gardens'
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Grey Gardens
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: The eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis caught the attention of filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter) when they were commissioned to make a documentary on the upper-class Bouvier family. Scrapping the Bouvier film, the Maysles moved into Grey Gardens, the crumbling East Hampton estate where Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” lived in squalor, surrounded by only raccoons and cats for company. In the direct cinema documentary, the two women describe their former glamorous lives as socialites in the ’20s and ’40s, respectively, dwelling on the glorious past as they retreat further into their strange little world of Grey Gardens.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Grey Gardens is considered one of the best documentaries of all time, but its place in pop culture is mostly as the subject of countless parodies and satires, reducing the two strange, wild women at the center of the film into camp icons. Though there is a level of camp to “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” — and to a certain degree, exploitation — in the two larger-than-life characters, who feel like a mix between Miss Havisham, and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Is Grey Gardens exploitation or is it simply hagsploitation-adjacent, thanks to its rare, discomfiting depiction of socialites who have fallen through society’s cracks? That’s what I wondered the entire time watching this fascinating documentary.
Watching Grey Gardens is like falling down a rabbit hole that will end with you scouring through Wikipedia pages about the Beales and the Bouviers, and all kinds of obscure Old Money families of America, to find out how exactly Big Edie and Little Edie ended up living in poverty in a crumbling East Hamption mansion. It’s a premise right out of a Gothic novel, right? Miss Havisham, withering away in her wedding dress in a ruined and rotting mansion. But the world of the Edies is not rotting, though the cat urine stains and the nests of raccoons may beg to differ. It’s bright, and colorful, and musical — the two eccentric women drawing you into their strange world as surely as Little Edie’s many scarves get lost to the “sea of green” surrounding the dilapidated house.
Big Edie, a classically trained singer who used to hold concerts in the Grey Gardens drawing room when it was a bustling vacation home, sings “Tea for Two” for the Maysles, whom the Edie’s are happy to invite into their home, calling them their “gentlemen callers.” And Little Edie, the star of the show, puts on several improvised dances for the filmmakers, decked in her upside-down skirts and head scarves which turned her into a drag-queen icon.
But amid the enjoyment and familiarity the two feel with one another, there’s resentment. Little Edie, at her mother’s ill health and strict character that kept her imprisoned in this East Hampton home and away from the city, Big Edie at her daughter’s middling talent and disappointing love life. Little Edie never married and Big Edie was left by her husband with only a depleting trust fund and Grey Gardens, though the two of them were beautiful socialites in their heyday. It makes for a fascinating, sad, upsetting character study, between two codependent women who were ultimately failed by a society long past, which trained them for nothing else but to sit still and look pretty. But while they were sitting still, the house fell down around them.
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