Grey Gardens Movie Review
Into this closed society, the brothers Maysles, best known for their Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, brought their cameras, and the result is 94 minutes of the strangest documentary footage you're ever likely to see. Since its release some time between 1975 and 1977 - different sources, fittingly, give different dates - Grey Gardens has acquired a cult reputation that only a few minutes' viewing serves to justify. The Criterion DVD release puts a real film oddity - and a notoriously obscure one - back within easy reach.
And no film - no Tennessee Williams adaptation, nothing by Guy Maddin or David Lynch, no genre-exploding Japanese horror flick - has ever had a stranger pair of characters at its core; although the squalor in which the two live is unimaginable, nothing is as amazing as the women themselves. Class-conscious, deluded, and adrift in a world of their own, Big and Little Edie recall their glory days (Big Edie's as a noted singer - a framed oil portrait of her stands against the wall near her bed, a cat memorably relieving itself behind it at one point in the film - and Little Edie's as a debutante and aspiring dancer), revel in the magical appearance of cameras and filmmakers in their lives, and exchange barbs about wrongs committed ages ago. The access they grant the Maysles is unbelievably intimate, to the extent that the film's detractors dismiss it as a cruel freakshow.
The antics that these women get up to are certainly freakish - there's a dance Little Edie performs for the cameras; her appearance in a "costume" for the day that includes a sweatshirt pulled back in her hair like a scarf; a scene in which she feeds a loaf of bread and a box of cat food to the raccoons; another in which the two bicker about the lyrics to "People Will Say We're in Love" (from Oklahoma!), a song Big Edie haltingly performs, never getting far past the line don't throw bouquets at me - but they've elected to reveal themselves to the Maysles, and you ultimately feel that the experience, although it may expose them to ridicule, enhances their lives.
Grey Gardens is structured around these day-to-day lives, a routine punctuated by visits from a "gardener" (Little Edie fears he's flirting with her, although she herself never ceases flirting with the Maysles for one single moment) and a birthday party for Big Edie attended by a few relatives. The film is unnarrated, and you wish sometimes for explanations that never arrive, the identity of these party guests being a prime example. You long too for a bigger perspective, such as interviews that might reveal how the Beales are received by their neighbors in the Hamptons, or talks with relatives. One definite advantage to the Criterion DVD is that the viewer obtains maybe as much as a third more information by watching the film with the optional English subtitles turned on (although the film is, of course, in English); the Edies tend to talk over one another, and their high American accents are sometimes hard to follow.
And in the end what you're left with is a glimpse into two lives at the furthest limits of American society. You could ponder the material presented for years (women, in particular, are affected by it, a fact I observed firsthand when I showed the film in my former capacity as a film programmer for an arts center). Tennessee Williams comes again to mind; having alluded to such existences in works such as Suddenly, Last Summer, you can't help but feel that he would have cherished this film. Ultimately, it's a strange gratitude you feel, both towards the Maysles and their collaborators for having provided this lingering look into two exotic lives being led in our midst, and to the Beales themselves for having shared it. Criterion has made the trip to Grey Gardens a short one. Take it.