Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Arts

Why I ❤️ Grey Gardens

Probably the finest documentary ever made turns 40 this week. Hannah Dunleavy tells us why she loves it and why it still has so much to teach us about the human condition.

Little Edie in front of Grey Gardens

Maybe you’re thinking you’ve never heard of Grey Gardens. You’re wrong. It’s everywhere. In sitcoms, in songs, in comedy routines. If Psycho is the pop culture apogee of a dysfunctional mother-son relationship, Grey Gardens has become shorthand for a particular madness that occurs when a mother and daughter spend too much time together.

In my family, where my retired parents are sometimes wont to lapse into talk about what might happen if they have the good fortune to become really old, it is generally my only contribution to the conversation: Grey Gardens. And with that, my mother knows that I love her, but I don’t want to live with her again. Like I know she loves me but wishes I’d stop going on about “seminal documentaries” she’s never going to watch.

But Grey Gardens is about so much more than mothers and daughters. First screened this week in 1975 (and what a year in cinema that was), Albert and David Maysles’ film shows the day-to-day existence of two former socialites – Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale. Relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the mother and daughter have fallen on hard times and have been reduced to living in one squalid room of the crumbling titular Long Island mansion, which they share with the various flora and fauna that has forced its way through the cracks.

“At points, it’s hard not to be disgusted by it all; at others, not to wonder how you might live if you thought the world would never darken your door again.”

It’s a phenomenal piece of work, filled with kitsch delights, real pathos and the sort of extraordinary symbolism that only real life can produce. The property’s garden, for example, once renowned for its beauty, is so overgrown as to be almost impenetrable and as Little Edie stands on her balcony above it, it’s hard not to see her as a caged princess waiting for her (preferably Libran) prince to hack his way through and rescue her.

It’s very difficult, Little Edie says – in a line sampled by Rufus Wainwright (of course he wrote a song about these two) – to keep the line between the past and the present. In truth, for the Beales, it’s impossible.

In 2010, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry for its representation of a “vanished era of decayed gentility”. Because while outside it might be the 1970s, inside Grey Gardens, the clock stopped some time in the early 1950s. Possibly literally.

Perhaps the cruellest side effect of Little and Big Edie having nothing to do is that appeal of a flight to the past. Among the few items from the house to remain with the pair in their retreat to its last room is a portrait of Big Edie in her prime. It rests against the wall, giving her constant cause for reflection. (It also gives the cats something to shit behind.)

Little Edie and Big Edie

It’s a sad, mad and fascinating world and the Maysles throw you right in. There’s no voiceover, no context, no let-up. Just two women, so far adrift from the rest of the world they no longer conform to any of its rules. Outside of reminiscing, they fill their days bickering – in an often grating Massachusetts society accent – eating badly and wearing clothes on body parts they were never designed for and often barely cover. At points, it’s hard not to be disgusted by it all; at others, not to wonder how you might live if you thought the world would never darken your door again.

But the world was watching and questions were raised at the time – and continue to be raised – as to whether Grey Gardens exploits Big and Little Edie.

Though conforming to a glib definition of madness, their mental state is far more complex. They’re both eccentric, often wilfully so, a situation exacerbated by diminishing contact with other people. What they most closely resemble are institutionalised prisoners: accustomed to their circumstances and utterly ill-suited to life on the outside.

“If you hold with the Jungian theory of dreams that the house represents the person, then Little Edie is Grey Gardens: its empty rooms her unfulfilled potential, its fading glory her own slow disappearance from the world.”

Sometimes they behave as if the cameras aren’t there, demonstrating an almost unique lack of self-consciousness; at others they flirt merrily, breaking into song and dance and welcoming the Maysles like they’re the last men on earth. Which, in many ways, they are.

Little Edie, in particular, takes pleasure in their company and confides her hopes and fears to them. She’s an intriguing character; an intelligent and, by her own definition, staunch woman.

Finding herself unmarried at 34 (but not, she would like it be known, because she wasn’t asked) she was called home to be a companion for her separated (but not, she would like it be known, divorced) mother and the pair began their slow slide into oblivion.

The Portuguese have a word, saudade, which describes a sense of deep longing for something or someone, made worse by the repressed knowledge that it may never return. Like you may feel for a missing relative or exiles may feel for their home country. Nothing, for me, embodies it more than when Little Edie talks of one day restarting her life in New York. A life she never lived, in a city she would no longer recognise.

In fact, if you hold with the Jungian theory of dreams that the house represents the person, then Little Edie is Grey Gardens: its empty rooms her unfulfilled potential, its fading glory her own slow disappearance from the world.

dilapidated room at Grey Gardens

And this is why I can never agree with the notion that Grey Gardens shouldn’t have been made. It would’ve been a tragedy for such a vibrant woman to have lived and died without leaving her mark and the film allows her to live on in a way that would otherwise have been denied to a childless, careerless and largely friendless woman.

Given Little Edie’s sympathetic circumstances, it would be easy to see her mother as the villain of the piece, but that’s far from the case. Both Edies have been failed; by their husband and father, by their wider family, by the high society they were once part of and the rest of society that let them slip out of sight. They are victims of their time and of their social standing, having never been given the skills or the self-belief necessary to change their circumstances.

Grey Gardens speaks volumes: about class, about history and the role women have been assigned in both. It is the human condition writ large and long may people continue to learn from it.

@funnypunts

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.