In her prime, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale had the kind of rare, fragile beauty that feels tragic. One of the two subjects of the 1976 documentary Grey Gardens (directed by Albert and David Maysles, working with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer), Little Edie shows the filmmakers pictures of her former self that serve as a reminder of beauty’s ephemerality. The shadow left when beauty passes affects beautiful people as deeply as possessing such loveliness in the first place.
All beauty eventually loses its battle with age, but life ideally offers the much more substantive and sustainable consolations of adulthood and middle age. The soul-enriching satisfaction of being a good spouse. The difficult joy of being an involved parent. The challenges of pursuing a rewarding, demanding career. Spiritual exploration. Self-improvement. An intense engagement with the arts, either as a creator or a patron. The list goes on and on. American society puts an absurd value on physical appearance, but when beauty fades, there’s plenty to replace it.
When Little Edie’s beauty began to fade, however, nothing replaced it. Though in the film she speaks, sometimes angrily and passionately, about powerful men who wanted to give her jobs—from her demanding, disapproving father to Burt Bacharach—she doesn’t seem to have worked in decades, if she ever really worked at all. It’s never even apparent what her career would have been had she pursued it more aggressively.
Beale performs one-woman dance recitals for the cameras throughout Grey Gardens with a look of joy on her otherwise-grim face. The look registers as real pleasure instead of the forced smile that is every dancer’s default expression. It’s the joy of someone putting themselves on display, an exhibitionist’s pleasure in being seen, even if that means being gawked at. Part of the reason Grey Gardens—named for the dilapidated East Hamptons mansion Little Edie shares with her mother, Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale—is so deep and endlessly rewatchable is that the Beales’ pleasure in being seen is matched by the Maysles’ joy in watching. These exhibitionists found the perfect voyeurs, and vice versa.
Little Edie ostensibly could have been a successful model, actress, or dancer (and tentatively pursued career paths in those fields without substantial success), professions where looks and connections are of supreme importance. But for women of her time and social station, beauty of the manner Little Edie possessed had a specific purpose: attracting a husband. That was the not-so-secret aim of debutante balls, coming-out parties, and puff pieces in the local newspaper: using Beale’s extraordinary beauty and status to attract a husband worthy of her lineage as a first cousin of the ultimate American aristocrat, Jacqueline Bouvier, later Jacqueline Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis. This makes the Beales the the kooky cousins of Camelot.
“If you can’t get a man to propose to you, you might as well be dead,” Little Edie frets early in Grey Gardens. In her youth, she apparently entertained no shortage of suitors, each with comically over-the-top qualifications: There was Paul Getty (“the richest man in the world”), European minor royalty with fancy names and titles, and creative geniuses. Yet Little Edie never married, had children, or created a family of her own. She never really had a career or cultivated a circle of friends. As her mother Big Edie quips, “France fell, but Edie didn’t fall.”
Why didn’t Edie fall? That’s a question at the heart of Grey Gardens, and one of the many the film never answers. Grey Gardens isn’t particularly interested in explaining how the Beales came to live in such squalor despite their auspicious background and connections. It’s more about plunging audiences deeper and deeper into the Beales’ world until it begins to feel less like a sad escape from the outside world, and more like its own universe. Rewatching Grey Gardens, it’s easy to get the sense that the old mansion is like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, that it holds an almost supernatural hold over its inhabitants that makes it prohibitively difficult for them to leave. In some strange way, they’re imprisoned both in their home and by their home.
The Beales were once almost evicted from their home by the Suffolk County Health Department until Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill paid for improvements that would at least chase off the specter of eviction, but nevertheless left the house a shambling, grotesque, gothic echo of its previous glory. Like the aristocrats they once were, the Beales seem untouched by the world of jobs and labor, and the pressure of having to earn a paycheck. They are perpetually vacationing, sunning themselves, reading books on horoscopes, and listening to Norman Vincent Peale lectures on the power of positive thinking on transistor radios that represent the height of contemporary technology at Grey Gardens. But the concept of “vacationing” implies that it’s an escape from a solid, dependable everyday life the vacationer will return to, refreshed, once the vacation ends. When the vacation spills out for all eternity, and there’s no solid, dependable life to return to, the concept begins to take on a much more ominous cast.
With no job to go to, and nothing to do, Little Edie talks. And talks. And talks. Unintentionally, she speaks in drag-queen-friendly catchphrases and soundbites. Part of the delight of listening to Edie talk in Grey Gardens comes from the clear pleasure she takes in words, ideas, and images. At times, her words ring with accidental poetry and philosophy, as when she eloquently encapsulates the film’s central theme: “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”
A newspaper clipping shown early in the film posits Beale as an aspiring writer, and while she didn’t realize that ambition any more than any of her others, she unmistakably has a way with words that’s central to the film’s hypnotic appeal. Whether crowing about being a “staunch character” (then spelling out “staunch” in a fit of steely bravado) or darkly explaining, “We’ll be raided again by the village of East Hampton. They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday, and all that sort of thing,” she’s a source of endless fascination, as much for her words as her background and current living conditions. Society might have attempted to mold her into the image of a submissive, acceptable wife, but she ferociously remains her own woman.
Hidden behind a giant pair of glasses, the largely sedentary and ancient Big Edie is nearly as verbal as her daughter, and their interactions sometimes take the form of a tragicomic double act. Little Edie spends much of Grey Gardens poring over the mistakes and missed opportunities of the past, and placing the blame for her stunted existence on her mother’s neediness and unwillingness to let her daughter grow up and realize her potential. Little Edie’s life is stunted because, for whatever reason, she neglected to do the things women of her breeding were expected to do: marry a high-born man and raise a family. Big Edie is living in the same squalor as Little Edie, but she at least has the fig leaf of having fulfilled many of the cornerstones of a respectable life, even if her marriage ended with a telegram from Mexico announcing that her husband was divorcing her.
Big Edie loudly and repeatedly proclaims that she’s overjoyed with the way her life has gone. This is partly to taunt and needle her daughter; where Little Edie sees her life as a tragedy in the making, Big Edie sees herself as a contented creature at the end of a long, eventful, successful life. Part of this also seems attributable to the self-delusion that would let someone live in filth and poverty after decades of wealth and splendor, without seeing the downturn as a crushing indictment of the way she lived her life.
Big Edie is casually cruel to her daughter, and vice versa. In perhaps her most vicious comment, she speaks of her daughter’s astonishing beauty as a young woman, and asks, “See how pretty Edie was when she was young? It’s perfectly foolish of her not to look that way now,” as if it were somehow possible for anyone but a vampire to hold onto eternal youth.
Big Edie’s words are all the more sadistic considering that beyond her eccentric sartorial stylings and head-wraps, the 56-year-old Little Edie still looks like the gorgeous woman she used to be. She maintains a dancer’s body and perfect legs, and there are moments throughout when the sadness dissipates ever so slightly, and the film captures a deeply moving glimpse at the remarkable beauty she used to be. She’s still beautiful, still fierce, still unique, still a staunch character.
Depending on the perspective, Big Edie’s willingness to let it all hang out, literally and metaphorically (she twice threatens to get naked in front of the cameras, and nearly makes good on her threat), either represents an admirable, even inspirational serenity, or a complete disconnect from reality. By all accounts, Grey Gardens was nearly uninhabitable due to the rank odor of animal waste, yet Big Edie professes to love the smell. When a cat uses a painting of Big Edie as a bathroom, she professes to be delighted “someone is doing what they want.” For Little Edie, her past glory, and her inability to access it, is a daily tragedy; for Big Edie, a symbol of her past glory is useful primarily as a place for a kitty to take a giant crap. There’s something both weirdly masochistic and healthy about that way of thinking.
Yet underneath the bitter comments and contrasting accounts of how Little Edie’s life came to take on the quality of a gothic horror novel, these two strange recluses share a bond of love and dedication. They need each other more than either party can ultimately admit, as evident in the affectionate manner in which Little Edie observes of her mother late in the film, “She’s a lot of fun. I hope she doesn’t die.” The juxtaposition of fun and death is unintentionally comic, but her appreciation for her mother’s irrepressible spirit is sincere. While the Edies’ feelings for each other are hopelessly complex and freighted with anger, resentment, and disappointment, there’s nevertheless a core of love that seems to keep them together just as much as their ferocious co-dependence.
Grey Gardens is a film of mysteries. Why did a pair of semi-shut-ins seemingly hiding from the prying eyes of an unfeeling world allow this window into their madness, loneliness, despair, and alternately loving and poisonously co-dependent relationship? Why would people who talk throughout the film of propriety, of the way in which things must be done, allow themselves to be seen in a state of borderline-feral madness, as dotty cat women living in colorful squalor?
The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with the Beales’ exhibitionism, in the way they never lost the hunger for the validation of the spotlight. They never stopped craving the adoring gaze of men besotted by their incredible beauty, class, and the way they sang, moved, smiled. That need for validation helps explain why the Beales invited the Maysles into their homes and never stopped performing for them. Even their fights have a theatrical quality, as if the two women’s endlessly circular fights were workshopped in earlier conversations, and were presented for the film in their finished, polished form.
Though Little Edie’s parents may have bred her for marriage, family, and a life of aristocratic politeness and respectability, the world had a much grander destiny in mind for her. Her art was being Little Edie, and she performed that role so brilliantly that nearly three decades later, we’re still talking, writing, and thinking about her. Grey Gardens is her masterpiece as much as it is the Maysles’.
We’ve revamped our Movie Of The Week Forum as a shorter conversation between two writers, which will now post along with the Keynote. We continue our discussion of Grey Gardens here, with thoughts on its ethics, the discomfort it engenders, and its early gay cult fandom.