Last night was my first encounter with Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie. These eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis lived a life of squalor in a mansion at the Hampton’s. They were ordered at one point to clean up the mansion which was in disrepair and full of raccoons and cats (at one point in the documentary, Edie fed an entire bag of wonder bread to the raccoons living in the attic). But they were full of life, singing, and arguing in the way only family members are able to, vicious and cruel one minute, affectionate the next. They were shut-ins, rarely leaving the house; they were once beautiful, still were in some way, and in their off-beat manner, they were often philosophic speaking about life, the meaning of, almost I must say, poetic (I started taking notes one-minute into the film when Edie said “You can’t be too careful–they’ll get you for wearing red shoes on a Sunday.”). They talk about each other from past loves to present stagnation, seeing their lives as still worth living. I enjoyed the interaction between the mother–I would guess she was in her seventies in this film made by the Maysles in the 70’s–the daughter, and often the filmmakers.
Now Grey Gardens can be enjoyed as a Broadway play–I wonder what this does to the biographical element, does it dramatize it more, or less? I don’t know if this is the trend, a musical drama about the drama between two eccentric women, but in the words of Edith Bouvier Beale: “There’s nothing worse than a staunch woman–they don’t weaken. France fell but Edie didn’t.”

“It’s difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”–Edith Bouvier Beale.

Certainly the Maysles are interested in recording the Beales’ very real life—the ruined house crawling with cats and fleas, the paper bird in the rusty gilded cage, the mother and daughter quarrelling—but those are the film’s most superficial elements. What draws the viewer in are the stories around what we cannot see: Miss Beale lamenting the loss of a scarf. The suitors turned away. Mrs. Beale’s infatuation with a man whose minor musical talent is better remembered than heard. Money spent. The dream of New York on summer nights filled with jackhammers and the moon. Regrets and recriminations: the language of lovers, the fabric of family life. The Maysles’ interest in the ephemeral, the passing of time in a sea of leaves, tells us that masks are all we have; people would not know who they are or what to say without them. Time is cruel, but we can overcome it a bit by insisting on self-expression (at any cost, since it generally does cost something: a conventional life and the conventional wisdom that goes with it).” –Hilton Als

They were intriguing on screen as people who’d had everything, and then nothing but each other.