My girlfriend recently purchased a film that I’ve never heard of in my entire career as a self-employed film critic. “Grey Gardens” is a 1976 documentary about a mother and daughter, Edith and Little Edie Beale who live at their estate called Grey Gardens. These two outrageous yet almost inane people are the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, the late widow of JFK. The film is an exposure of these two women, a slice of life that less than 1% of the world will ever experience. This is possibly one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (up there with Crumb and Z Channel).
Edith Beale (the mother), or “Big Edie”, was in her early 80s during filming and it showed. She sits in bed through most of the movie, in a room that I could smell through my television. She lives in her majestic yet deplorable home which is filled with cats, raccoons, mice, and any other kind of filth that you can imagine. Her bed is covered with cats and trash and she has a disgusting looking minifridge in the corner. She yells at her daughter, constantly criticizing everything she does and is. This woman seems almost unbearable. Yet there is a side to her, a reminiscent side that we see when she sings old tunes and when she remembers how it used to be. She is a woman who knows her time is almost up and she can’t help what she does or says. She truly is a tragic character.
Little Edie, the cousin of Jackie Onassis, is featured most often in the film. She is an icon in the fashion world nowadays but back then she looked like a total loon. Little Edie wears a bandana to cover her hairless head (supposedly due to an “accident” in which she lit her hair on fire), throughout the entire film. She also has one of the most powerful speaking voices I’ve ever heard. Throughout the film she lets the two directors (Albert and David Maysles) in on her entire world and that includes all of her opinions on life, her mother, the home, and above all: herself. One can see that Little Edie was once beautiful and if she had not been stuck with this famous family she may have turned out to be a gorgeous woman. Instead, she seems like a ghost living in this home until the end of time. The scenes in which she and her mother reflect on life are intriguing yet voyeuristic and as a viewer, I became enthralled in their lifestyle. They could live in a beautiful home, wear only the most expensive clothes, and be the height of society but that isn’t the case. They are basically as normal as they can get, but they really do what they feel like.
The most memorable and powerful part of the movie is when Big Edie sings “Tea for Two.” She will not forget her past, and she remembers her past loves in life including her husband and most obviously Little Edie who seems to want to be distant from her mother but just can’t draw herself away. “Grey Gardens” is an instant love of mine, and a beautiful film. I give “Grey Gardens” an A.