In East Hampton, New York, a middle-aged woman in a bright scarlet dress and matching headscarf turns pirouettes on her porch, marches to a tune only she can hear and coquettishly plays up to the camera before, with a final flourish, she strides inside the house. This is ‘Little Edie’ Beale, former model, animal lover, cousin of Jackie Onassis and one of the residents of the grand, dilapidated house at Grey Gardens. Filming for their documentary of the same name, Albert and David Maysles capture the fierce, antagonistic relationship Little Edie has with her mother and housemate, ‘Big Edie’ Beale, and shares the reminiscences, philosophies and songs that have led them to this rundown Hampton home.
The Beales came to the public’s attention in 1971 when the Suffolk County Health Department determined that their house violated numerous building regulations and subsequently threatened to evict them unless they cleaned it up. Their relation to Jackie Onassis meant that the story was picked up by the national media so, perhaps sensing a philanthropic opportunity or tired that her name was being eagerly linked to another ‘scandal’ by the press, Jackie O came to the rescue and helped fund the cleanup of Grey Gardens.
After a brief introduction to the bickering Beales – during which the jungle outside their home is contrasted with shots of the manicured lawns of East Hampton – we see a montage of the headlines that were generated after the visit from the Health Department. The Maysleses, however, aren’t so much concerned with why the house became such a mess but how the Beales arrived there in the first place. They do so by treating the Beales as people first and foremost, rather than subjects or stories. There is genuine affection between those filming and those being filmed and co-director Muffie Meyer claims to have exchanged letters with the Beales long after completing the documentary.
Little Edie proves to be the outgoing, self-conscious star of the show, right from the start. Born into a wealthy family – her grandfather was a prominent New York judge, as was her father, Phelan Beale – she was accustomed to a life of privilege and soon became known for her charm and beauty. Much to her parents’ distaste she modelled for a period before moving to New York in pursuit of a career in showbusiness. The money ran out eventually, however – partly due to a falling out between her mother and grandfather which meant that Big Edie inherited next to nothing from him when he died – so Little Edie was forced to return to Grey Gardens.
She may have given up on New York but she didn’t stop performing and the arrival of the Maysles brothers provides Little Edie with the perfect opportunity to dust off her songbooks and dancing shoes. She proves to be the most spirited and endearing of subjects, at times completely natural in front of the camera, at others noticeably self-conscious. But this isn’t a solo act, its a duet, and it’s the interactions between Little Edie and her mother that reveal the most about their characters. They are identical personalities and Big Edie, while less mobile than her daughter, is just as fond of music, having pursued her own career as a singer in her earlier life. They are cut from the same unique cloth and on camera they switch between fond reminiscences of old photographs and their favourite records to arguments over the most trivial of matters, such as the raccoons in the attic that feed of the bread and cat food that Little Edie provides. Their disagreements often move on to more deeply held bitterness – on Little Edie’s part, for instance, there is a suggestion that her mother is partly to blame for the fact that she’s never married – and the Maysles brothers for the most part are content to let this play out in front of them. They do engage with the Beales but only rarely do they try to direct the conversation. When Little Edie asks their opinion on her past career choices they wryly respond, ‘What does your mother think?’ You get the impression that they know full well what she thinks. These conversations provide more than enough material for this documentary and the Maysleses revisited it many years later, putting together The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006) using previously unseen footage shot during their visits in the ‘70s.
This reminiscence by the directors is appropriate considering that Grey Gardens is most poignant when it considers the passage of time and its effect on the house and its residents, but despite the perception that it’s all falling to ruin, the Maysleses show that Grey Gardens is merely being allowed to live. Little Edie remarks on this on more than one occasion and at one point during The Beales of Grey Gardens she talks about the naming of their home:
When viewed from the Beales perspective – or even the Maysleses – the conservatism of the East Hampton neighbourhoods that we see in those early scenes simply reveals their neighbours’ self-conscious desire to conform. In contrast, it is not that the Beales don’t have standards, it is that they set their own standards. Their gardens stand as a symbol of lives lived on their own terms. The Maysles brothers and their crew must be commended for capturing these lives but Grey Gardens is only so engrossing because of its inadvertent stars and their extraordinary charisma.
Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Cinematographers: Albert Maysles, David Maysles
Editors: Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Starring: Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Edith ‘Big Edie’ Bouvier Beale
Runtime: 94 minutes