In a way, Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, is a psychological horror film of the most truly frightening kind. It’s an unflinching study of aging, loneliness, and failure. As with other well-known works by the Maysles brothers, including their wrenching 1968 portrait of travelling Bible salesman (Salesman), this is direct cinema. There’s no context given to their subjects, we’re just plopped down in the middle of their lives. Their style can be jarring for anyone used to the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking or, say, the programming seen on the History Channel. That’s not to be disparaging to those more conventional, information/education-based approaches. In Grey Gardens, we initially have no idea who we’re watching or why they were selected as the subject of a feature-length film.
A mother and daughter, both named Edith Beale, lived on a squalid estate (named Grey Gardens) in East Hampton, New York in the mid-‘70s. The 79-year-old mother, “Big Edie,” was Jacqueline Onassis’ aunt. That made her pushing-60 daughter, “Little Edie,” Jackie O’s first cousin. The Maysles (co-directing with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) documented the women’s bizarre lifestyle and unhealthy relationship. Once well-to-do socialites, Little Edie now tends to her ailing mother. We see them argue endlessly about their glory days. Both fancy themselves talented singers (the evidence presented does not make a convincing argument for either of them) and each blames the other for their then-current state of obscure poverty.
The horrifying aspect of Grey Gardens lies in the fact that anyone of us can potentially become hopelessly, tragically mired in the past. The Beale women have gone utterly nowhere in their lives. Their past glories are in the quite distant past, but they don’t reminisce in typical fashion. Especially in the case of Little Edie, there doesn’t seem to be any understanding that by the mid-‘70s, their decades-past heyday would never return. Little Edie is a desperately lonely woman, nearing senior citizenship but still pining away after some imagined suitor that will likely never arrive. She flirts with the Maysles, who occasionally interact with the women rather than maintaining “fly on the wall” status. Her sashaying and parading for them is queasily embarrassing, especially the way she flaunts her thick, aging body as if she were an 18-year-old debutante.
While we learn from Albert Maysles (the surviving brother; David passed away in 1987) via the disc’s extras that Grey Gardens was intended as an affectionate portrait, it’s hard to take that entirely at face value. Many have argued that there is no such thing as “normal,” but it should be fairly obvious that the Beales—whether “normal” or not in their behavior—are not living a healthy lifestyle. There is the sense that the filmmakers must certainly have recognized this fundamental fact. Right or wrong (or somewhere in between), filming the ramblings of two mentally-troubled people and issuing it for the purpose of advancing one’s career is inescapably a form of exploitation.
The Beales’ home is literally falling apart around them, with a basement overrun by raccoons (which they ritualistically feed Wonder bread and cat food). Big Edie, obese and of highly-limited mobility, wastes away in bed, gorging on ice cream and watching her many cats urinate wherever they please. Little Edie has not grown up. Though she lived outside her mother’s home in the past, working as a model for Macy’s (she reveals her long-gone youthful beauty via old still photos), she is emotionally reliant upon her mother. Big Edie is treated by Little Edie as a scapegoat of sorts, cited as the primary reason for her failures in life.
It’s all uncomfortable to take in, yet fascinating. In the supplements, one fan of the film, a fashion designer who based his clothes in part on Little Edie’s ever-changing costumes, describes Grey Gardens as a car crash you can’t look away from. He quickly admits it’s considerably deeper than that. Any given viewer’s reaction to the film is likely to be largely influenced by the specific circumstances of that viewer’s own lifestyle and mindset. One could easily laugh at the Beales, especially those confidently youthful viewers who can’t possibly accept that a similar fate could be awaiting them in old age. It’s just as likely that a viewer will empathize to some degree, recognizing something of themselves in Little and Big Edie’s complex, codependent relationship.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray offers as good a presentation of Grey Gardens as anyone is likely to see. Returning to the original 16mm camera negative for the transfer, the 1.33:1 image retains all the natural graininess expected of a direct cinema documentary of the era. The clarity of the image is startlingly revealing, with every one of the Beales’ wrinkles and age spots visible. The audio is a simple, uncompressed mono track that lets us hear what the filmmakers’ now-archaic, analog Nagra (visible in one shot early on) recorded.
The main supplement here is a second feature film, The Beales of Grey Gardens. Originally released in 2006, the 91-minute film is comprised entirely of unused footage shot for the original Grey Gardens. It offers even further insight into the desperately sad, lonely, and unfulfilled life of Little Edie (her mother is not as prominent a presence in this “sequel”). We also get a 2001 commentary track by the surviving directors, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, joined by producer Susan Froemke. Especially valuable for anyone perhaps perplexed by the film, this is a worthwhile track that allows for a greater understanding of the filmmakers’ motivations.
There’s also 40 minutes of excerpts from a 1976 audio-only interview with Little Edie. Two contemporary fashion designers weigh in with their thoughts on how the film influenced their respective styles. Three still-photo galleries—“Family Album,” “Behind the Scenes,” and “Cats”—round out the impressive supplements package.
Though an HBO biopic of the same name was released in 2009, with Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie, it isn’t a stretch to imagine Grey Gardens as a John Waters film. Edith Massey certainly could’ve portrayed the mother, with, say, Liz Renay as her daughter. The two Edith Beales, as evidenced by Grey Gardens, were garish individuals, in both appearance and demeanor. However much humanity is on display in the documentary, it’s buried underneath a nightmare of reclusive isolation, paranoid delusions, and an overwhelming sense of sadness.