Sunday, June 11, 2017
Grey Gardens: A Review
My mother's reviews are more succinct than mine will ever be. For Gravity, her review was simple: two hours of Sandra Bullock crashing into things. For Grey Gardens, it was equally direct: those two old women were just crazy. I would say that the subjects of Grey Gardens, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, transcend eccentric. The film is a cult film with passionate admirers of Little and Big Edie, but I found it anything but either amusing or inspiring.
Grey Gardens is the estate on which the-then 79-year-old Mrs. Beale and her 51-year-old daughter live together in opulent poverty (to use a phrase originated by my friend, Fidel Gomez, Jr.). Once one of many tony estates in East Hampton, New York, to say that by the time Grey Gardens was made the home had fallen into disrepair is being kind.
The house was in near-total ruins: cats and raccoons have the run of the estate, grass, weeds and everything else have spread out unchecked over the gardens, garbage and animal feces everywhere (though to be fair, I'm not exactly sure if there wasn't human feces lying around the rooms either), the interior is crumbling to where by the end of the film we see what had started out as a small hole in the wall become a wall-long hole. Grey Gardens was in such shambles that early in Grey Gardens, we see newspaper reports of the county health board going there and ordering the tenants to make repairs or face eviction and demolition. We also see reports that their niece and cousin came up with $30,000 to just bring Grey Gardens up to code.
That benefactress was former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
That is one of the big draws to Grey Gardens: that these two former society doyennes were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O herself. Whether Mrs. Onassis came to their rescue out of genuine concern for her family or to avoid more embarrassing headlines Grey Gardens neither asks or tells.
I imagine that Grey Gardens must have been in better shape, because if it had looked back in the day like it did when co-directors Albert and David Maysles shot this bit of cinema verité, he would have run out of the house screaming (assuming he would have been able to have gotten in through the wild brush and animals and crumbling infrastructure).
We see the two women living out their lives in ways that one wouldn't imagine those born into wealth and privilege would. They cook corn on a stove in a bedroom they share. The younger Beale leaves bread for the raccoons that have taken up residence, first in the attic, then just about everywhere else. They take the sun on a terrace, where the elder Mrs. Beale's top is constantly in danger of coming off and showing off her breasts.
In one ghastly moment, as the hunched-over Mrs. Beale stoops while getting up, we do get a quick glimpse at her sagging and very wrinkled breasts before the camera quickly swings towards her daughter, about the only moment of restraint and taste the Maysles ever showed as these two women continued and continuously embarrassed themselves before the cameras.
Little Edie, for her part, is a fashion rebel. Wearing head scarfs and even sweaters on her head (apparently to hide that she had no hair) and having no problem wearing blouses as skirts, Little Edie reads horoscope books with a magnifying glass and her weight scale with binoculars.
Very little to anything actually happens in the time; they see Jerry, the young repairman whom Little Edie calls 'The Marble Faun' (after the Nathaniel Hawthorne story). Mrs. Beale takes a rare walk downstairs for a birthday party, one with only two guests and a suggestion by Little Edie that they use newspapers to cover over the dirty dinner chair seats. We get treated to singing by both Mrs. and Miss Beale as well as two or three dance routines by Little Edie, the last one closing out Grey Gardens and which looks like it was not done for the cameras (unlike the other two, where she played up to them).
One watches Grey Gardens with a mixture of horror and sadness as these women with apparently very tenuous grasps on reality go out of their way to look ridiculous. I can imagine Mrs. Onassis, if she ever saw the film, looking on in sheer shock at seeing her relatives behaving not just so ostentatiously but downright reveling in their antics and the squalor to which they had become accustomed to.
Both Mrs. Beale and Miss Beale have no problem living in these conditions, seeing nothing really wrong with the house or in agreeing to be part of this freak show par excellence. That is in essence what Grey Gardens is: a garish freak show where you wonder whether these two women were in their right mind, apparently either unaware or uninterested that people seeing them in these conditions might prove shocking or garish.
It's a fascinating, bizarre, even hypnotic freak show, but a freak show nonetheless. Freak Show might be the strongest description for Grey Gardens, as we do end up watching a show about freaks: former upper-crust women who now live on crumbs (and feed them to wild animals they let have run of their house). It's like watching a Tennessee Williams story come to life if he had written about Yankees rather than Southerners. It almost makes Suddenly, Last Summer look like a romantic comedy.
Something about Grey Gardens just doesn't sit well with me. Having seen it twice, I have never been able to shake the impression that the Maysles did exploit them, or at least egg on the women in their oddball behavior. They never stopped them from embarrassing themselves for our amusement.
I felt embarrassed for them at the end of Grey Gardens, a little disconcerted at seeing them act and look so strange in their crumbling, dilapidated house, living out some sort of odd fantasy among the ruins.
You could sense Miss Beale's resentment at being there, at not having had that glorious stage career she thought she might have had or the lovers/husbands she might have had. You could also see Mrs. Beale's obliviousness to all that, and yet for whatever there was beneath or behind them they still held on to each other in this bizarre love.
The Maysles shot them as they were, but whether that was a good thing or not is up to the viewer. They never had either of them sit down for a formal interview in Grey Gardens. Instead, we saw them eat, dance, sing, fight and do nothing to rectify their situation. They might have liked how they lived, and people might like to see how the formerly glamorous, even beautiful Beale women were back in the day.
It doesn't take away that while that is how they were, the film shows them, intentionally or not, in as garish a light as possible.
I know many people find the two inspirational, even wise. They do have some sharp observations and witty quips. "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present," Little Edie says early on. When it came to Little Edie's lack of marriage, Big Edie retorted in reference to her daughter's courting days in World War II, "France fell, but Edie didn't fall".
On the whole, however, there is something unpleasant about the whole venture, something tawdry and unseemly. Do people enjoy Grey Gardens because they find the elder and younger Beale inspirational or ridiculous, Avant-garde or unhinged?
Grey Gardens is a fascinating, bizarre portrait of two women in a world of their own. Still, my only feelings for them after it all was one of sadness, of horror, of pity, and embarrassment. I couldn't fathom photographing anyone in such sordid conditions, unless it were to derive pleasure out of someone's misery, self-inflicted or not. It is worth watching, if only to serve as a cautionary tale of how not to live and how not to appear in public.