Why Grey Gardens is Still an American Treasure

News has just broke of the death of Albert Maysles, a pioneer of the American documentary, who together with his brother David made some of the most defining films in the genre, including Salesman and the landmark concert film Gimme Shelter. However, the duo will be most remembered for a small-scale documentary tracking two women aging in squalor and seclusion in their dilapidated mansion. The film of course is Grey Gardens, and it has very rightfully earned its reputation as a piece of high art and an instantly iconic piece of American pop culture. For skeptics and those uninitiated to its beautiful strangeness, the immediate reaction after a round of ‘WTFs’ may be, why was this made? Or even more pressingly, why are we still watching it?

One answer might be because there’s simply nothing else like it. After reading a cover story in New York Magazine about two cousins of Jackie Kennedy facing eviction from their sprawling estate in the Hamptons now gone derelict, the Maysles brothers decided to investigate. With camera in tow, they ingratiated themselves into the home of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (‘Big Edie’) and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (‘Little Edie’), two former socialite women who walked dangerously close along the brink of sanity. With virtually no plot to speak of, the film works entirely as a highly atmospheric parlor drama, one where the cartoonishly large personalities of the women carry our attention solely from each delicious bout of banter and bickering.

Revisiting the film now, it’s astonishing to find just how thoroughly it preceded today’s idea of reality television. The concept of following people in their personal home with a camera seemed odd in 1975, but it’s all one can find on a television today. The disgusting conditions in which the Beales lived has its echoes in shows like ‘Hoarders’ and its’ subsequent iterations, where the audience finds its pleasure in the shock of filth in which its seemingly ordinary inhabitants are content with living in. One key scene shows a cat using the bathroom behind a Beale family portrait to the delight of Big Edie. “I’m glad somebody’s doing something they wanted to do!” she squeals; does reality entertainment get better than that?

It is also impossible to discuss Grey Gardens without its’ implicit place of enshrinement in gay culture, most recently getting a big shout-out in Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. If gay men love one thing in this world, it’s seeing two fabulous women outsnap each other in a battle of sass, which is approximately 65-75% of the film. The musings of Big and Little Edie have become a veritable gospel for young gays everywhere in need of inspiration: “If you can’t get a man to propose to you, you might as well be dead” Little Edie insists after demonstrating how her skirt can also be used as a cape for mid-afternoon garb. “France fell but Edie didn’t fall” Big Edie tells us as she reclines on her four-poster bed and cooks corn on the cob from a bedside pot. The dialogue is a wonder of the film, made all the more wondrous when reminded that it is spontaneous conversation and not scripted comedy.

But filth and laughs aside, the story of the Beale women is one that has proven to be more and more resonant as time goes by. At one time they were the toast of the town, eligible high society women of the ruling class with connections to the presidency itself, and now they have lost everything but their beloved Grey Gardens, clinging to its’ walls as a shield from the outside world where they no longer hold power, respect, or even beauty. Their extreme disconnect from reality is both heart-wrenchingly sad and somehow admirable, too many of us now may find their plight striking a chord close to home. In a world changing faster than we can anticipate, it’s almost comforting to find heroines who have refused to change or adapt, choosing instead to project their desires and imaginations onto a world of their own design, one insulated from time itself.

This refusal to accept the natural flow of aging is ironically part of what has made this film so timeless. Reality is a hard truth for many to swallow, and seeing an unlikely mother-daughter pair so stubbornly, resolutely, and so damn fabulously refuse to accept this truth is astonishingly potent in its emotional punch. It’s a tenet that Little Edie addresses herself in one of the film’s many striking moments of clarity. “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. It’s awfully difficult.” Grey Gardens, remarkably, straddles this line with precision and grace. It is a relic of both film history and American history, and yet it is a film that has lost none of its relevancy, efficacy, or outright hilarity as time has marched steadily on.

The new restoration of Grey Gardens is being shown at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St, through March 12th

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