in Criterion Month

Grey Gardens (1975)

I’ve wanted to see Grey Gardens ever since watching The Queen of Versailles, a conceptually similar 2012 documentary about an hilariously stereotypical, obscenely wealthy family trying to build the biggest home in the country just as the Great Recession is about to hit. But I worried they were too similar, so I dragged my feet getting to the 1975 original. Thankfully, we have Criterion Month. Now that I’ve finally seen Grey Gardens, I can say that, while the “riches to rags” theme is shared between the two films, there’s one major difference: The Queen of Versailles is about that collapse, while in Grey Gardens the decline was decades and decades ago.

Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale lives with her mother, Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale, in Grey Gardens, a derelict mansion in East Hampton, New York. Little Edie’s father had been out of the picture for some time before the documentary, leaving the duo without a source of income. As the years went by, nature reclaimed the estate. The gardens grew massive and wild while countless critters started sharing the house with the women. Not that the Beales were doing much about it, they both seem fairly helpless when it comes to taking care of themselves, much less a massive 14-room house.

There’s a palpable mixture of love and resentment between the Edies. Little Edie, at this point in her mid-fifties, desperately regrets the life choices she made. She could have been famous or married well, she says. Instead, she had to take care of her mother. Big Edie, nearing eighty, is much more concerned with convincing everyone that she has lived a good life. She talks fondly about her youth and the men she loved and has no interest in Little Edie’s complaints. It seems Big Edie wants Little Edie to accept her current lot in life and move on, but maybe she just doesn’t want to hear anything that would ruin the image she has of herself?

Grey Gardens does receive a little support from the community. There’s Jerry, a young man who has become a sort of handyman for the Beales, showing up to do odd jobs around the house. Not really anything to turn the tide of decay, mind you, but enough to keep them happy and add a pleasant goofiness to the madness that is this place. There’s also Brooks, the gardener, who seems perfectly nice but Little Edie is suspicious. With their help, the duo are able to sustain themselves, mostly by eating canned food. Beyond those two helpers, and perhaps most bizarrely, there’s a birthday scene were two new people, a very old man and a middle-aged woman, show up without the film really making it clear who they are. Perhaps the Beales didn’t know either?

The documentary does such a good job putting you into this world. I got such a strong sense of how dirty, how smelly, how unpleasant Grey Gardens had become. The way so many of Little Edie’s scenes have Big Edie yelling for her in the background tells you everything you need to know about their interdependence. It’s beautiful, the whole operation is so quirky and funny and sad. It’s like a documentary about an abandoned haunted house, where the ghosts have long since abandoned any hope of scaring visitors who will never come and instead have descended into petty bickering.

The way the Beales present themselves paints a dire, sympathetic portrait of humanity. They talk to each other and about each other, but they are obviously deeply self-centered people. They came from a powerful family, were provided with so many opportunities, and they still ended up like this. It boggles the mind to think about, so they can’t think about it, so they’re in denial about it. Little Edie talks about how she’ll move to the city and Big Edie continues to reflect on how nice things used to be. I think of the assumed nobility of something like Downton Abbey, where the estate is a pillar of the community and everyone, from servant to royalty, feels honored to play their role in maintaining tradition. Compare that to these bitter old broads yelling at each other as the raccoons take over the attic and you can’t help but laugh at the brazen absurdity of such an idea.

The cinéma vérité approach was absolutely the right one for Grey Gardens. The directors, David and Albert Maysles (as well as Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer), were brilliant in not trying to force any sort of narrative on these two amazing characters. The documentary opens with some newspaper clippings that clue you into why they might have been interested in Grey Gardens in the first place, but after that the movie just lets the Beales be themselves. Could this be a well-edited smear job? I guess, but hopefully not. Because they’re so weird you could probably pass this off as a found footage movie if it was released now.

Grey Gardens is a masterpiece. I’m so happy that today, the Amazon Prime Day, instead of shopping, I got to spend my time watching the deep rot of capitalism manifest itself in two directionless, decaying, depressed debutantes. They failed, but society failed them first by letting anyone ever get into situations like that. God help us all.