Grey Gardens: What the Maysles’ Came-“lost” Can Teach Us
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
What makes the difference? As “Little Edie” Beale points out in the Maysles Brothers’ cult-classic documentary, Grey Gardens (1975), life can be summed up “by three lines” [sic] from Robert Frost’s classic poem The Road not Taken (1916):
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both…
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As straightforward as that sentiment may seem, Frost always maintained that the poem was a “very tricky one,” perhaps not to be read without irony. This is the sort of irony that the perceptive Little Edie perhaps saw in her own thwarted life, a life utterly devoted to her mother—the socialite-aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—“Big Edie.”
Thirty some-odd years later, their story continues to resonate with audiences. It was remade into an HBO dramatic special in July 2009 and the Tony-nominated musical version—which first hit the stage in 2006—recently made its way to Boston in May of 2009. Thus, it would seem that the tale of two resilient mondaines reduced to extreme reclusion, penury and squalor is at once bewitching and repulsive in its reality.
It was precisely the conflation of seemingly incompatible states of being with the Beales’ abundant charm that first gripped the Maysles Brothers. Originally the cinéma vérité-directing duo were approached by Lee Radziwill and her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, about doing a documentary about their lives growing up in the Bouvier family. In researching the family, however, the Maysles came to the realization that their eccentric aunt and cousin living in a dilapidated, flea-infested East Hampton manse would make much better film subjects than Jackie and Lee.
The Beales’ allure? Perhaps it lies not so much in their patrician charm or their extreme living conditions, as in our own self-recognition in their dysfunctional, parent-child relationship. Add to that a nostalgia for the Seventies in all its campy glory, and—as Christine Ebersole noted in a February, 2007 interview on “Theater Talk”—the broader issue of societal disenfranchisement (whether of gays, women, or other underprivileged group) and you certainly have a hot topic for today.
Truly, the greatest attention paid toward the story does seem to come from the gay community. But why? Perhaps this phenomenon can be best-understood by comparing the Beales to another familiar gay-icon in popular culture, Bette Davis. In attempting to explain Davis’ popularity with gay audiences, for example, the journalist Jim Emerson wrote: “Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn’t aged well? Or was it that she was ‘Larger Than Life,’ a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both.”
Little Edie does seem to embody just this sort of fierce tenacity when she exhorts us with phrases like: “There’s nothing worse than a ‘staunch woman’….They don’t weaken, no matter what.” She follows the phrase with an “OK” hand sign, and a knowing look. Immediately, we, the audience, are with her. Adventurous types may also feel secret camaraderie with her in her flamboyant mode of dress: an affectation which evolved both out of her desire to cover her stress-induced Alopecia, combined with her child-like love of dressing-up and playing at starlet. The latter were inherited from her mother, once an amateur singer and performer. Both women enliven the long, empty hours spent at Grey Gardens by singing and dancing to the dated soundtracks of their youth.
Throughout the film we feel like voyeurs, intrigued and repulsed at the same time by the direct cinema techniques of the Maysles. Yet, the Maysles are successful in their endeavor to explore rather than exploit, because the film is not a simple act of gawking. Along with experiencing, perhaps, Thomas Hobbes’ comic sense of superiority, we also feel drawn to the humanity of the women. We are entranced by the same antipodes in their characters and circumstances that drew in the Maysles.
That said, in watching the original film, I have to say that at times the ladies’ bickering with one another seems to get the best of them. Yet, one coincidently also senses the inner-strength of these women, their devotion to each other, and their compulsion to provide daily nurturing for one another. As becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the film, however, this nurturing sometimes crosses a line that veers into unhealthy territory.
According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “Codependency” is: “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as an addiction to alcohol or heroin); or broadly: dependence on the needs of or control by another.” The dictionary also notes, interestingly, that the term “Codependency” was not coined until 1979. Thus, the Beales would not have heard of the condition at the time the documentary was filmed. Thus, they would not been availed of that lens through which to see their relationship.
You might say the predicament all started when Little Edie came back to East Hampton from Manhattan around the close of WWII to take care of her mother. At that time Big Edie was in poor health following an eye operation, and long separated from her husband. In her own words, Little Edie was “sick and tired of lying awake at night wondering what was happening to my mother.”
In her mother’s version of events, on the other hand, it was Little Edie who didn’t desire the glimmer of society’s spotlight in her debutante-youth. Big Edie says (in a rather philosophical way), “everyone thinks and feels differently as the years go by…”
And on and on it goes. The two women are in constant competition.
Upon Big Edie’s suggestion that—rather than her daughter’s patient—she was busy as care-taker of Little Edie for twenty-five years, Little Edie parries with: “The whole mark of aristocracy is responsibility…is that it?” To which Big Edie (somewhat humorously) screeches, “I’ll have to start drinking! I can’t take it. She’ll make a drunk out of her mother.” As each woman turns to the lens, the camera becomes their longed-for audience, we their boxing corner-men.
Twenty-five years into this codependency-melodrama, Little Edie still wonders, “When am I going to get out of here?” (She longed to be back in New York City above all.) “Any little rat hole, even on Tenth Avenue.” “I’ll just have to leave for New York City and lead my own life. I don’t see any other future.”
Though she longs for independence, Little Edie states that “I see myself as a little girl.” (Her mother’s little daughter.) And, congruently, her mother sees her as an “immature girl.” Little Edie perceives, however, that the filmmakers see her as a woman: precisely how she feels in New York City.
Indeed, according to her, living and loving in NY was her lifelong aspiration. According to Little Edie, she didn’t go into a nightclub act in her youth because: “[When] my father [Phelan Beale] was alive…That was it. Mr. Beale would have had me committed.” According to her, her father believed in running his children’s lives and wanted her to get an MA and become an assistant in his law office.
Then, there’s perhaps the most redolent scene in the film: when one of their dozens of feral cats goes to bathroom right behind Big Edie’s painted portrait. In a rebuke to Little Edie’s constant grousing, she quips, “I’m glad he is. I’m glad that somebody is doing something that he wanted to do.” It’s so unscripted, and so utterly fabulous.
A more subtle, yet remarkable development occurs when Little Edie’s stress-induced balding seems to abate. About halfway through the film, her hair begins to come back. Seemingly, she’s recuperating her selfhood and self-assuredness through the therapy of making the documentary. She even cleans the house, and redecorates, bit by bit. She makes little altars out of roses, childhood memorabilia, and souvenirs of some of her travels.
Similarly traipsing down her own memory lane, Big Edie listens to ancient records, and sings along—reminiscing about her thwarted singing career—whilst playing with her cats. Both matron and felines curl up on the bed together, Big Edie, singing You and the Night and the Music (1939): “Make the most of time, ere it has flown…”
In a fashion, the mother wants to perhaps keep her daughter from making the same mistakes—getting married, losing her independence and later suffering abandonment. Yet, she’s also seemingly jealous at her success in doing so.
The film is like an opera, the two voices intertwining, escalating and de-crescendoing as the Beales compete for center stage. In the end, they are more like star-crossed Gemini, twin mirrors of a forged reality from which they cannot escape.
In the end, Little Edie concludes that it is her mother’s house. And, that’s that.
She casually and quixotically remarks: “She’s a lot of fun, I hope she doesn’t die.” Of course, Big Edie eventually did pass away, a scant two years after the film was released, setting Little Edie free to pursue her aspirations of living in Manhattan and cabaret singing, fulfilling a lifetime’s worth of stardust dreams.
In closing, it bears mentioning that in the literature on the film, no one mentions the symbolism of Little Edie’s favorite fashion accessory—one that she wears throughout the film—an oblong brooch decorated with a wreath of roses and laurel sheaves. The two intertwining emblems are symbolic of “Love Victorious:” an apt metaphor for the spark of hope that Little Edie keeps kindled in her, the irresistible spark that draws us near, like moths to a flame.
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an editor of Bread and CircusMagazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.