Imagine you were once part of the richest American families, considered even “royalty” by some. Imagine your mother was the toast of the Hamptons, and you yourself were celebrated for your looks as well as your writing abilities. Furthermore, imagine that you went to all the best schools, dined at the finest restaurants, and dated the most distinguished eligibles available. Imagine that your cousin was married to the most beloved president ever …
Now, imagine that all of that is taken away and all you are left with is your home and your mother.
Welcome to the world of “Little” Edie Beale who lives with her mother, “Big” Edie in the flea, cat and raccoon infested crumbling East Hampton mansion, Grey Gardens.
I had heard about the film, Grey Gardens for years but only just experienced it for the first time this week.
Released in 1975, Grey Gardens (co-directed by the Maysles Brothers – who’d done “Gimmie’ Shelter” a few years before hand), is a documentary about a mother and daughter living a somewhat Mrs. Havisham-like- existence in a crumbling estate that sits on a weed-choked yard in an otherwise upper-crust neighborhood.
Inside the rotting home is where the real story is. Upstairs, lying in her bed in a filthy bedroom littered with newspapers and a hotplate is “Big” Edie Beal, one time socialite and aunt of Jacqueline Onassis. It seems that in her younger days, Big Edie grew bored with the constraints of being a mother and hostess so she took a piano arranger in and started studying voice in hopes that she might someday perform on the stage in supper clubs and the like. Such things were just not done back in the day, and Big Edie’s husband promptly divorced his wife and left her. Somewhere along the way, Big Edie’s fortunes were squandered and all she was left with was her home and her memories and her daughter, “Little” Edie.
How to describe Little Edie? Imagine Norma Desmond and Baby Jane Hudson by way of an aging Park Avenue debutant – yeah, that’s about it.
We first meet Little Edie in the yard of Grey Gardens, and frankly it’s a shocking introduction; here is this oval faced woman filling the screen, her head wrapped in what appears to be a sweater held to her head with a dragon-fly broach. But wait! The camera pans down and we see that Little Edie is explaining her ensemble as her “combat outfit”, for some reason her skirt is on upside down and held together with safety pins!
This couture moment of Little Edie’s is the first of many. We see her in form fitting bathing suits, scarves, insanely thrown together pant suits and revealing halter tops. The one constant in Little Edie’s wardrobe, though is a head covering. It might be a turban, or table cloth or even a bath towel (you’ll notice this one as soon as you see it), but her head is always covered. It appears that she is bald and it is never explained why – it’s also obvious that she has no eyebrows (when out of makeup, Little Edie’s face is like a blank canvas).
Unique clothing aside, It is also apparent that Little Edie’s elevator may not be making it to the top floor. Yes, it seems that the woman is mentally ill – (in one memorial scene, she describes herself as a “Staunch character”). One wonders if in her halcyon days was she known as “eccentric”.
If Little Edie is a nut-case, then Big Edie is also crazy; like a fox. It is evident from the get go that the little old lady who remains in her bed for most of this film, is running the show. She knows the buttons to push to get her daughter to act out or be subservient, she even flirts with a very young handyman as well as the film makers (actually, it is obvious that both of these women are desperate for some affection and they both seem to be competing for the eyes of every man who come into their lives). It should also be noted that Big Edie does not seem shy. In more than one scene, the old gal is shown in various stages of undress.
It’s also interesting to note than whenever Little Edie is away from her mother, especially when the camera is on her, mother can be heard calling for her, “Edie, yoo-hoo, come here, I need yoooou!”
This bizarre documentary (which is NOT for everybody) is complete with odd highlights including:
* Little Edie’s melt-down when the interviewer asks what men have supported her mother.
* Big Edie’s version of “Tea for Two”, sung from her bed to a scratchy recording that may or may not be her own voice from when she was much younger.
* Little Edie and the hippie/handyman guy putting kerosene on themselves as a tick deterrent.
* Big Edie’s birthday party and the subsequent “dinner party”.
* Watching Little Edie set out a loaf of Wonder Bread and dump a box of cat food on the attic floor to feed the many raccoons that now live in the attic; and during this she obsesses over a book found in the attic and wants to know “who” took it out of her room and put it there!
* Listening to Big Edie compliment and flirt with the hippie/handyman by telling him that his face is as beautiful as her late mother’s.
* Marveling over Little Edie’s big dance number to the Virginia Military Institute’s Marching song.
Make no mistake, Grey Gardens is not a film for the casual viewer. It demands full and undivided attention, you’ll either hate it or love it. If, however, should you give in to it’s disturbingly seductive spell, you will find your self in a state of awe seeing how the other half experiences it’s ongoing deconstruction all the while acting out some psychodrama that one understands continued long after the film crew wrapped things up and went home. For some reason, I felt sympathy for these two women as I watched the gothic goings on.
Grey Gardens: you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.