The Bouvier Beales, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were the relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her aunt and cousin respectively. They had come to notoriety through a battle with the Hamptons over the state of their property, Grey Gardens. The idea of two relatives of the famous former first lady, living as recluses, was too juicy not to pique people’s interest. Having met filmmakers (and brothers) Albert Maysles and David Maysles, the ladies invited them in to film a documentary. What follows is a fascinating view of a co-dependent relationship of two women who seem to share a mental illness. As any trained psychologist will tell you, diagnosing someone from video footage is liable to be inaccurate. Since I’m not a trained psychologist, I will venture to guess that they might be diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder.
Big Edie, a former singer and society beauty, reigns mostly from her bed. It is filthy, with newspapers strewn on it for the dozen-plus cats to do their business, pictures and random memorabilia on top of the papers, and a hot plate next to her from which she cooks the random bits of food she eats rather than balanced meals at regular times. Little Edie, who, by nature of being more ambulatory than her mother, features more heavily in the film, is a failed actress and society beauty for whom living at Grey Gardens seems to be as much punishment as refuge. There is a story that emerges through the documentary, although it is unclear just how much of it is fact and how much delusional fantasy. Little Edie, who had moved to New York to become an actress, is recalled by her mother to Grey Gardens after an eye surgery when she needs nursing. By then, Big Edie had been left by her husband, “Mr. Beale” as they both call him. Not believing in divorce, she has lived as a separated woman for the rest of her life, even as her husband divorced her and re-married. Little Edie feels that she was on the verge of making it, and blames her mother and father for conspiring to keep her at Grey Gardens. She is distraught by the male companions her mother has invited to live at Grey Gardens for years at a time, whom she neither gets to approve of nor considers to be her friends, rather just her mother’s. She is also distraught by the men who got away. She mentions all the men whom she could have, should have married, including one whom her mother supposedly scared away in just 15 minutes. This is very distressing to her as she returns to it again and again.
To say the house is decrepit is to put it lightly. If this were not a documentary, one could blame a production designer of being too contrived in using a broken down home to represent the broken down mental state of the two women who live within. Little Edie, in her headscarves made from scarves, sweaters, and towels, her tight skirts, sometimes made from sweaters, and ever-present fishnet stockings, speaks to the Maysles, explaining herself as her mother screeches at her from other rooms. Her mother could be seen as harmless, until you notice how cutting she is with her words. When Little Edie is singing and dancing, her mother criticizes her for singing so badly, unlike herself with her trained voice. She berates her daughter constantly for her failures, never accepting her own.
This is not a Ken Burns-esque ultra slick documentary. It is full of rough camera work, out of focus shots, and camera movement while in tight closeup (which creates dizzying motion blur) and yet, this is all so appropriate. The raw look of the film gives a sense of immediacy and seems a commentary on the mentality of these two women, fascinating, eccentric, and a bit off.
“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” -Little Edie, Grey Gardens