GREY GARDENS (1975) C 96m dirs: Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer

w/Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, Jerry Torre, Lois Wright, Jack Helmuth, Brooks Hyres, Norman Vincent Peale

From the Turner Classic Movies website,, this article about the film by Eric Weber: "In the mid-1970s, documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (most known for Gimme Shelter, their 1970 documentary chronicling the 1969 Rolling Stones concert in which a spectator was killed by members of Hell's Angels) were approached by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's sister, Lee Radziwell. She was interested in commissioning the brothers to develop some sort of filmic 'family album,' allowing them access to various relatives and friends. Two particularly curious relatives that came to light were an aunt and cousin, both of whom were named Edith Bouvier Beale and resided in a mansion in East Hampton, Long Island. The name of the estate was 'Grey Gardens.' At the time, the property had become a controversial issue in the community due to the extreme neglect and squalid living conditions of the residents. The conditions were so substandard that the Beales were warned by the county's board of health with threats of eviction unless something was done about it. Finding these two characters and their circumstances so intriguing, Albert and David took their cameras and entered the lives of these women and their unusual world within the walls of 'Grey Gardens.'

"When the Maysles eventually showed a rough cut of their footage of the Beales to Lee Radziwell, she was appalled and immediately demanded the negative which they gave her. Regardless of whether she destroyed it or not, it was obvious that Radziwell did not want the public to know about her aunt and cousin. Ironically, Edith Beale (Big Edie) and Edie (Little Edie), had so enjoyed being filmed by the Maysles that they invited them to come back a year later and continue their project which became the feature documentary, Grey Gardens (1975).

"An intimate portrait of two women living an insular existence, Grey Gardens explores a relationship that alternates between extremes of love and hate. Big Edie and Little Edie pick fights with each other, make up, sing, eat together, reminisce about the past and philosophize about life. Despite Little Edie's continuing threats to leave 'Grey Gardens' for a career as a dancer, the two women never complain about or address the filthy living conditions they endure. The mother and daughter appear to live in some sort of timeless bubble, with the concept of time or what year it is being completely irrelevant. When you are in 'Grey Gardens,' you are in a Beale-created time warp. The house, a 28-room mansion, can be considered a character unto itself. With its dilapidated appearance, rooms with free-roaming cats and raccoons, and the main grounds overgrown with foliage, the estate is like an island, separated from the rest of the world. Certainly, in the minds of our two protagonists, it is.

"The lives of Big Edie and Little Edie could have been conjured up by writer Tennessee Williams, whose stories of faded, withered glory and often grotesque eccentricities are trademarks of his style. The truly unique and often startling physical appearance of the Beales also brings to mind the work of photographer Diane Arbus, an artist whose work celebrated the bizarre, the strange and the unique. Like many of Arbus's subjects, the Beales seem completely unaware of how they will be perceived by others. They are totally comfortable with themselves though some viewers may not ever find a comfort zone at 'Grey Gardens.' Hilton Als, in his liner notes for the Criterion DVD of Grey Gardens, aptly described the Maysles Brothers' approach to their subject: 'Its haunting subtext is this: the truth is best presented through metaphor. The Beales are themselves, born into a particular class at a particular time. But they are also the selves they've created: a singer, a dancer, whose florid self-preservation cannot be eclipsed by hard times, bad times --- so-called real life...The Maysles' interest in the ephemeral, the passing of time in a sea of leaves, tells us that masks are all we have; people would not know who they are or what to say without them. Time is cruel, but we can overcome it a bit by insisting on self expression.'

"The biggest challenge facing the Maysles Brothers in organizing their countless hours of footage for Grey Gardens was how to structure it. What was the story they were trying to tell? Co-director and co-editor Ellen Hovde recalled that the best way to engage an audience with the Beales' story was with a psychological structure: 'It's the development in the nuances of how they repeat a story. One day they laugh about it, the next day they cry about it and in the end, the way it's structured you come to understand I think why Little Edie is there and why Big Edie wants her there so the relationship is set up in that first scene between the Beales and the Maysles.'

"Over the years, Grey Gardens has been scrutinized, over-analyzed and viewed repeatedly by fervent fans. But for detractors of the movie, the most common criticism has been that it is nothing more than exploitation and in bad taste. In many cases, the Maysles were accused of taking advantage of two sad, deluded women. One critic, complained about the Maysles' disregard for the Beales's privacy or personal dignity, 'Like the shots of "Little" Edith Bouvier Beale, a large 56-year-old, taken from below as she climbs upstairs in a miniskirt, rambling to herself; or "Big" Edith, the demanding 79-year-old mother, with her towel falling off her withered, naked body.' What the Maysles realized in most of these attacks was that the reviewer was reflecting his own fears of aging and death. Viewers with any empathy for the human condition, however, can see moments of truth and beauty in Grey Gardens. While it is important to note that although the Beales were certainly playing to the camera to a degree, their interaction with each other accurately mirrored their day-to-day existence. Albert Maysles confirmed this when he described the filming process: 'Each day we would pause nearby, get out of our car to change our clothes or whatever, we could hear their conversations in the distance and it was the same statements of love and resentment and arguing and so forth --- exactly the same character we got on film.'

"Despite an aura of tragedy that surrounds Grey Gardens, it is also surprisingly entertaining due to its endlessly quotable lines and the memorable fashion expressions of Little Edie. She ingeniously weaves together frocks and outfits made from found objects like tablecloths, towels, or any sort of fabric. Her unusual sense of style is highlighted by the wide array of head wraps that she wears throughout the film, leading the viewer to wonder if Little Edie has any hair. That's one of many questions that go unanswered but adds another intriguing but perplexing layer to the film. How did these two once-prominent women end up in such impoverished circumstances? What happened to Little Edie to make her retreat from the world and remain with her mother? Did Jacqueline Bouvier Onassis ever come to visit the Beales? What did she think of them?

"Big Edie passed away shortly after the completion of Grey Gardens but lived long enough to view the film and voice her endorsement of it. As for Little Edie, when Grey Gardens had its New York premiere at the Lincoln Center, she was in attendance with the filmmakers, wearing a Jackie Onassis red velvet dress on backwards. As the lights came up and the audience burst into applause, Little Edie tossed them a bouquet of roses. The film's notoriety quickly fueled a public curiosity about the Beales and Little Edie finally realized her dream of singing and dancing before live audiences. For a brief engagement, she appeared at the now-defunct New York City cabaret, Reno Sweeney's, where she performed songs, danced, told stories about her life and even took questions from the audience. The fame was short-lived and Little Edie returned to 'Grey Gardens' as her mother had requested. She eventually left there and found a new home in Florida where she lived until her death in 2001. In some ways, Little Edie had achieved her goal of entertaining and making people happy in ways that she probably never imagined.

"Since its release on DVD, Grey Gardens has gained newfound attention thanks to a 2006 off-Broadway musical based on the documentary (featuring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson as Big and Little Edie respectively). The play has gained so much positive press and audience success that the play will make the move to Broadway.

"Also in 2006, Albert Maysles (brother David died in 1987) revisited the hours of unseen footage shot at 'Grey Gardens' and put together another feature-length film devoted to the Beales entitled The Beales of Grey Gardens. It has also been noted that a new film version dramatizing the lives of the Beales premiered in April 2009 on HBO starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie.

"The Beales' influence on pop culture continues to resonate, especially on the internet where fans of the film have created music videos and homemade movies as a homage to the Beales. Many of these appear on the enormously popular media sharing website,, and one of the most interesting videos is a re-envisioning of Little Edie dancing to the catchy, disco-inspired Madonna tune, 'Hung Up.'"