In this era of contrived reality TV, with its orchestrated conflict, artificial situations and relationships that barely last from one episode to the next, the cinema verite documentary Grey Gardens stands in stark contrast, a prime example of the depth and power that true reality “entertainment” can reach.
Grey Gardens is a fascinating glimpse into the eccentric household of a mother and daughter caught in a co-dependent relationship that lasted decades. The setting is a time capsule of their own making, their decaying 28-room house in the East Hamptons. The women are none other than Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin, Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith Beale, referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie by the filmmakers.
In 1975, when the film was made, Big Edie was in her seventies, practically bedridden, but still lucid and full of stories and song. In her youth, she found minor celebrity as a singer but fell on hard times when her husband left her and she lost her fortune. Her fifty-something daughter Little Edie had everything that wealth, breeding and good looks could get a girl of her generation. She was a debutante, courted by the rich and famous men in her social set, and dreamed of a career as a dancer in New York City. But after her father left in the ’50s, Little Edie was called home by her mother…and never left.
Shortly after the Beales made headlines when their home was condemned by the Board of Health, they came to the attention of brother documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter). They spent six weeks with the mother and daughter, recording the utterly unique, yet strangely universal, relationship between these two women. They bicker, argue, complain, reminisce, and sing together. They’re open, honest, uninhibited, unusual (some would say eccentric) but they are never boring. Little Edie’s unique flare for fashion (you’ve never seen sweaters and towels worn in quite this way before) is almost reason enough to see this film. And then there’s the dance sequence that is both bizarre and heartbreaking.
This documentary really stuck with me and had me thinking about it for weeks afterward. In typical Criterion Collection fashion, the DVD comes packed with interesting extras. I did something I rarely do–I watched the film a second time with the filmmakers’ commentary, which enriched the viewing of the film and provided more insight into these women and the process of bringing their story to the screen. [**** out of 5]