David & Albert Maysles
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
When I was a boy, my family lived down the street from a reclusive old woman. She lived alone and no one knew if she had family who supported her. Her corner house had stood for so long that any paint originally on the shingles had long since faded away and had never been replaced. No lights ever emanated from her windows, no activity ever seemed to grace her rooms. Some nights, however, in the summer when our windows were open, I would awake with a start to hear a low, sustained moan that sounded like that of a wounded animal. My grandmother would tell me that it was the woman on the corner, crying with pain from the ailments of old age. Sometimes I would catch glimpses of her on the rare occasion she set foot outside her house — it was like seeing a ghost in the middle of the day. I rudely stared at her, even as a child aware of the fact that I might never see her again. The next thing I knew, I was twelve and was standing in the middle of her house, carelessly rooting through boxes of bric-a-brac. The old woman had died and the whole neighborhood had turned out for her estate sale to finally satisfy their curiosity.
Standing in that house was like being transported back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Gas sconces jutted from the gilt-papered walls, smoke still staining the ceiling above them. Brocaded, overstuffed chairs were tagged for sale, ancient antimacassars still clinging to their backs. The remains of a life spent in solitude were sorted into cartons and priced for purchase by the armful.
It was a startling moment for me in that this woman, though she had lived mere yards from me, was a complete stranger only now known to me through her meager possessions. It was a moment I had long forgotten until I watched Grey Gardens, the breathtaking and very moving film portrait of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie, by the Maysles brothers. The film evoked in me a similar sense of shame and amazement that I was looking in on a private life, a privilege I felt I had not earned. The difference is that the old woman who lived down the street from me never expected that I would be in her parlor one day, trespassing and fingering her brooches. The Beales, on the other hand, had practically invited me in and were performing, quite unguardedly, the pageant of their lives for my personal benefit.
Grey Gardens is a strangely alluring film that, like its subjects, fairly defies description. It can only be explained as a true cult film: once introduced to its mysteries and strange pleasures, the novitiate cannot help but become an evangelist for the film, begging friends and relatives to see it, if only so they don’t feel like a lonely addict when they watch it, alone, for the fifteenth time. The convert begins not only to care for the Beales as if they were beloved family members, but becomes fiercely protective of them as well. One surefire method of pissing off a Grey Gardens fanatic is to assert that the film is exploitive. At first blush, the film may seem like an invitation to mockery, but the more one uncovers of the vast history of the Beales at Grey Gardens, the more the film becomes a monument to the fiercely independent nature of these two staunch characters.
In 1972, in their January 10th issue, New York magazine published a personal essay by Gail Sheehy recounting her strange encounters with the ladies who lived at Grey Gardens. Events that are only hinted at or briefly mentioned in the film are detailed in Sheehy’s piece. For those of you who wonder why Mrs. Beale described her daughter’s younger days as wild (when it seemed Edie only wanted to be on her own for a while), Edie regales Sheehy with the tale of how she ran away from home three times before Mr. Beale abandoned her mother. And what of that abandonment? Apparently Mrs. Beale was so bored with the strictures of society that she hired an accompanist and started singing in New York nightclubs. This simply wasn’t done, especially by a woman from a prominent family with a husband and children. Instead of reining her in, Mr. Beale threw up his hands and moved out to his hunting lodge. Mrs. Beale’s father was less aloof. After threatening several times to disown her for her bohemian behavior, Major Bouvier finally cut her out of his will after she showed up, outrageously dressed, halfway into her own son’s wedding. Upon Bouvier’s death, she received the sum of $65,000 in a trust fund to be administered by her sons. Needless to say, the money was long gone by the time Sheehy or the Maysles got to Grey Gardens. The tragic fable of the Beale women is this: by turning their backs on society, they paid the price of their freedom by having society turn its back on them.
It’s tempting to laugh at Little Edie when she whines, “weah gonna get raided again,” but the sad truth is that the women really did live in fear that the Town of Easthampton and Suffolk County would kick them out of their house. It had been attempted before. On October 22, 1971, a posse of health inspectors, detectives, and ASPCA representatives forced their way into the house and discovered a stomach-churning spectacle of five-foot high mounds of garbage, floors covered in cat shit, and evidence that the Beales had been using a bedroom as a latrine. The family, including Jacqueline Kennedy (Mrs. Beale’s niece), refused any assistance. So inured were they to the Beale women’s stubbornness, they hoped that the house would be condemned if only to force the women to move somewhere else. The Beales remained, literally and figuratively, unmoved. They were, in Edie’s words, “artists against the bureaucrats.” They had survived months of harassment from the local authorities and could (and would) withstand years more. After all, they were Bouviers.
Being related to one of the most famous and beloved women in the United States ensured that the resulting controversy over the Beales escalated into a public scandal. The American press, shocked by the inattention of this prominent family to the needs of their relatives, treated the Beales with kindness. Of the press, Edie remarked, “I don’t think we can live in America anymore. The only freedom we have left is in the press.” Unfortunately, the international press was considerably less kind and painted a portrait of the Beales as senile old biddies who needed to be put away. All they really wanted was to show the world that they were just talented, misunderstood artists. All they really wanted was a chance to tell their side of the story. Along came the Maysles brothers, their camera loaded with film and flea collars around their ankles.
Originally introduced to the Beales by Lee (Bouvier) Radziwill, who wanted them to make a film about her and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’ early years, the Maysles felt the Beales of Grey Gardens made the much more interesting subject (and who can blame them?). Though the Maysles acknowledge their own presence in the film from the first moments and converse with the Beales from behind the camera, they never stage or direct the action. The Beales are in charge of the whole show. Mrs. Beale sings her favorite tunes, boils corn for everyone on a Sterno stove on her bed, and generally berates Edie for transgressions large (being a difficult child) and small (singing the incorrect lyrics to a song). Edie shows off her eccentric outfits (including the fabulous “revolutionary costume”), moans about how she can’t bear another winter at Grey Gardens, and performs her famous Virginia Military Institute dance. By participating, nay, collaborating in the film, the Beales lifted a great middle finger to the village of Easthampton, to the press, to their disapproving relatives, and to anyone who would dare tell them how to live their lives. Every song, every dance, every “costume,” and every slice of Wonder Bread fed to a raccoon is a brazen act of defiance.
While the primary appeal of the film might be observing the Beales as a matched set of Miss Havishams, living their lives frozen in time, it is undeniable that there is a lot of pain, need, and regret between these women that remains unresolved. Arguments unsettled for thirty years continue on as if the outcome still mattered. Betrayals of decades past resurface as if they had been committed yesterday. The two women, united in their struggle against family and society, are divided by their own personal power games between each other. Mrs. Beale scared off every suitor Edie ever had because she didn’t want to be left alone. Edie resents her mother for having taken up with a drifter who was eventually found dead in their kitchen. The speed with which a loving exchange between the two can turn into a heated row is practically head-spinning.
One of the most shocking moments in the film comes, however, not from one of the many contretemps between the two women, but from a quiet moment of reflection as they look through old photographs. Edie holds up to the camera a few pictures of youthful, happy, stunningly beautiful women. It takes one a moment to comprehend that these pictures are of Mrs. Beale and Edie in the periods of their youth. After viewing this film several times and reading up on the history of the Beales and the Bouviers, I still cannot wrap my head around how the women in those pictures came to be the women in the film. I suspect that it is the result of living together, as they had, in complete isolation for decade after decade, but it is still one of the great mysteries of the film. Of course, Edie would not want us to dwell on it. “I hate it when people say I was beautiful in the old days,” she said to Gail Sheehy. “I want to detach myself from the past! Do you understand? I like to think I’m good now. I’m terrific now!” No one would ever deny that Edie was indeed terrific, but as much as she wanted to escape the past, she seemed trapped into reliving it with her mother day after day.
Edie, after years of threatening to get away from Grey Gardens, only succeeded when Mrs. Beale died shortly after the theatrical release of the Maysles’ film. She moved to Bal Harbour, Florida where she could finally live in freedom as she wished, swimming in the salty waves and sunning herself on the beach. Just as the film became a way for a larger public to hear Mrs. Beales’ story and a monument to her memory when she passed, so too did the Criterion Collection DVD become a platform for Edie and the lasting tribute to her. She died in January 2002, just months after the release of the DVD. I remember watching the 2002 Academy Award ceremony and its alternately touching and loathsome tribute to those in the film community who had died that year. When Edie’s face unexpectedly flashed on the screen in a scene from Grey Gardens, I was filled with a flush of emotion. She really was a star after all, and, by god, she outclassed every single one of the people in that audience.