Our reviews of Grey Gardens (published July 29th, 2009) and Grey Gardens / The Beales Of Grey Gardens: Criterion Collection (published December 14th, 2006) are also available.
"I only care about three things: the Catholic Church, swimming, and dancing. And I had to give them up."—"Little" Edith Beale
They are arguing again, as they always do. The older one, reminiscing of bygone days, her triumphs as a mother and a performer; the other, lamenting her failures as an ingénue and her distance from urban utopia. Cocking her head for the benefit of the camera, the younger one sarcastically rolls her eyes at her mother, snapping, "Ah, the hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility, is that it?"
Even America has its aristocracy, the landed gentry that haunt communities like the Hamptons. Along these streets, mansions hide behind long driveways, and the wealthy count their blessings. But among these mansions lurks Grey Gardens. And its inhabitants, cousins to American royalty (does Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis ring a bell?), have fallen from grace.
Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, dubbed "Little Edie." When we first meet them, Little Edie muses that the police might be coming to raid them—again—while she wonders if one of the many cats that wander in and out might have crawled into that unnerving hole in the wall, the one that keeps growing as raccoons take up residence in the attic. Like gothic outcasts from Faulkner or Hawthorne (Little Edie refers to The Marble Faun), the Beales are the trailing edge of the aristocracy, the forgotten stragglers of a dynasty. Rather than ruling on high, their natural sociability has been put to the test in coping with everyday nuisances.
In spite of this, Little Edie soldiers on. "It's awfully difficult to keep the line between the past and the present," she remarks, as she wonders if her clever attempts to make her tattered wardrobe fashionable might be too much for the hired help. What are her obligations as the last of the patricians? Must she hold up a certain standard of behavior as part of a public face, or must she retreat from the cameras in shame?
David and Albert Maysles, whose camera captured the street-level desperation of the door-to-door salesman in the cinema vérité classic Salesman, make their presence in Grey Gardens known from the outset. For some vérité purists, this might be taboo: the camera should act objectively and not interfere with the subject. When the Maysles point their camera, the soft color image captures the textures of the dilapidated home and the slow degeneration of Little Edie's beauty—the product of frustration and time. The monaural soundtrack picks up all the ambient noise: in one scene, Little Edie practices dancing the VMI Marching Song for the Maysles, mentioning that she practiced all night, but seems disappointed when the slight whine of a plane overhead draws attention away from her.
Indeed, Little Edie is always performing for the camera. This is why the presence of the Maysles is necessary in the film. She constantly addresses them, flirts and jokes with them. Performance is what drives Little Edie: appearance, clothes, literary allusions (Robert Frost, Hawthorne), public image. Trapped in her own lost past, Little Edie has become a simulacrum of herself. Her existence is all performance, and she constantly needs an audience. If not New York, to which she longs to return, then the Maysles' camera. If not the Maysles, her mother.
For Big Edie, the act of performance is subtler. She pretends not to care about the camera, casually mentioning she might be naked or demurely remembering her past. But she requires an audience just as much as her daughter: she sings along to a record of her own youthful voice, she tells stories of her abortive career on the stage. The two Edies have performed for one another for so long that the camera is only another participant; they would continue to do show off even if the Maysles were not there. Perhaps, in the end, this is the very function of aristocracy in America: to become spectacle. In their need to be on the public stage at any cost, they have trapped themselves. They dance around one another in circles, the same thing day after day (and if the film has a major flaw at all, it is in this repetitive structure—but perhaps that is exactly the point). They support one another psychologically by showing off all their joy and rage and frustration. As Big Edie says, "You can't get any freedom when you're being supported." And even without money, without servants, without paparazzi and celebrity, the Beales still need to perform for us. They need our approval and support. And we still need to watch.
And the Maysles, with Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke, deliver. When the Beales first came to public attention, as police raided their home and Gail Sheehy exposed their plight in a 1971 article, Hollywood offered a theatrical treatment with Julie Christie as a (presumably) tightened and coherent Little Edie. The real Edie balked, demanding to play herself. And she does. Playing herself is what Little Edie does—it is all she has left. Criterion's release of Grey Gardens offers Little Edie the chance to shine. In addition to the film, we are presented with a 1976 audio interview (running about forty minutes) with Kathryn Graham that expands on some of the backstory and reveals a bit more of her paranoia (at one point in the film, Little Edie wonders if handyman Jerry has been sneaking around the house stealing her books). A photo scrapbook offers three sections: a series of photos and news clippings detailing the Beale history, a host of photographs of the Beales and Maysles, and a group of photographs of the ubiquitous cats. Recording over the color bars at the end of the film, we are offered a recent four-minute phone conversation (my guess is probably December 2000) between Albert Maysles and Little Edie (now retired to Florida) in which she chats excitedly about her fans and offers some comments about the Bush/Gore election debacle.
Regarding those fans: Little Edie became a sort of cult figure after this film because of her flamboyant personality and quirky sense of fashion (especially her ever-present headwear, leading everyone to wonder if she actually had any hair!). Fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett, in two separate interviews recorded by Albert Maysles, attest to this cult status. Although the Bartlett interview suffers from bad audio (Criterion apologizes for this in a note after the clip), the two designers rave about Little Edie's "hypnotic" personality. In the film's commentary track, the filmmakers joke about Little Edie's popularity and her joy at the attention. While Albert Maysles does make a few comments about the brothers' relationship with their subjects and makes a few technical observations, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Fromke easily dominate the conversation. They discuss how their nearly 100 hours of film and audio footage was reshaped into a psychological structure, "squeeze[d] into fictional form," in order to explore how Big Edie and Little Edie depended on one another. They spend a good deal of time observing the gender and class politics of the film, how both Edies gave up their dreams of personal fulfillment in favor of family obligations.
And for the royal families of America who imagine that their lives are private and protected, the great truth is this: that their final obligation, "the hallmark of aristocracy," is to dance for their real master, the camera.
Grey Gardens offers a unique look at family and fame. As Little Edie covers her face with a mirror (photographed in the style of Man Ray or Magritte), she reflects us, her desperate vanity a blank face upon which we might impress our own insecurities. The Edies isolate themselves, their world spins away from the mainstream, and Grey Gardens becomes a story that suggests our own constant struggles between the desire for attention and the desire to simply be left alone.
The Beales have punished themselves enough. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke
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