July 19, 2006
Back To Grey Gardens
Just over 30 years ago, the Maysles brothers (Albert & David) filmed two overly eccentric women in their ramshackle East Hampton home. They didn't know it at the time, but theirs was the first, and still the best, of the whole reality genre.
The artful product of their fly-on-the-wall camera work is the film we've come to know and cherish as Grey Gardens. It was recently shown, with great reverence, at Guild Hall. The stars of the piece are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, "Little" Edie. Yes, they're directly related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. No, Jackie-O is not responsible for their decrepitude, nor did she turn a blind eye to their 'desperate' plight. Had she not quietly paid to have the roof replaced, Grey Gardens probably would have fallen in on its inhabitants.
In fact, the film exists because of a project Lee Radziwell wanted the Maysles to make about her and her famous sister's childhood years in East Hampton. She supplied the information on the Beales as relatives still living in town. Upon interviewing them, the project about the stylish Bouvier girls was shelved and the film about the whack-o Beale girls was born. And rightly so. The film has gained cult status over the years, and those who love it really L-O-V-E it. Seems they can't get enough of it.
I, myself, have seen the film three times. The first time, I was in college and this documentary masterpiece was not taken so seriously. We considered it to be an "underground film" — giving the likes of Andy Warhol some serious competition. I found it absolutely hilarious, as did my friends, and we fully intended so see it multiple times. Then I completely forgot about it. A decade later it turned up in a film class I was taking. I believe the point the professor was trying to make was, basically, if you find a fascinating subject just point the camera in its direction and let the movie make itself.
Being more mature and soulful, I remember pondering where one slips across the border between eccentricity and full-blown insanity. Wasn't I deep? Little Edie would have been so pleased. Fast-forward another 20 years, and there I am in my seat in Guild Hall. The surviving Maysles is there to introduce the showing and to take questions at the end.
Both of the Beales are now deceased, but boy do they come alive on that screen. The priceless scenes never fail to amaze and amuse. For example, the vision of Edie standing on a bathroom scale and reading her weight through binoculars. Edith singing an operatic version of "Tea for Two" while in her bed and wrestling with an enormous straw hat. Edie lithely ascending the rickety attic stairs and chattering away as she dumps a huge loaf of Wonder Bread and a whole box of cereal on the floor to feed the family of raccoons who've taken residence.
The banter between this pair of quintessential co-dependents can be marvelous and they're surprisingly coquettish with their upper crust accents. The biggest revelation of seeing this over-the-top stream of consciousness for the third time is that they don't seem as insane as they used to. They're starting to make sense to me, God help me!
I think our crazy world is catching up with the crazy world of this dysfunctional mother/daughter act. People have always gone on in mournful tomes about how sad their lives are, especially the younger Edie. Her story is especially hard to pin down since she contradicts herself. At one point "any little rat hole in the city" would be preferable to living as she does. Then she earnestly hopes her mother won't die because "she's a lot of fun." Yet they were so happily lost in the fog: all that singing and dancing and sleeping in twin beds side by side.
Their candor was wonderful. Real unhappiness comes to families who bottle-up and fester in silent anger. The Beales were exactly where they wanted to be, and now there's a dingy, clutter-strewn cloud in heaven.