“Grey Gardens,” October 31, 2020 (1975), DVD. This is considered by most film cognoscenti to be one of the great American direct cinema documentaries. It is reality filmmaking, the predecessor of reality TV. But the subjects here, unlike the current crop, live as they are, regardless of the camera’s presence. Or so it appears. Watching this was not fun but we could not turn away for long.
Hired by Lee Radziwill to do a film on the Bouvier family, filmmakers Albert and David Maysley were introduced by them to the mother-daughter duo, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, Radziwill and Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and first cousin. Although the Bouvier film never ‘happened,’ the brothers became fascinated by the Beales. They were fallen New York socialites total eccentrics, Catholic fans of Norman Vincent Peale, cabaret performer wannabees, living in a decrepit mansion, Grey Gardens, in posh Easthampton, New York. Both were great beauties in their day and they still exude that, but in the craziest of ways. The Beales gave the Maysles permission to film them being themselves during the summer and fall of 1973.
Living and dressing as they please, they hoard memorabilia of their past glories, but it’s stashed helter-skelter in drawers and boxes. They shared their 28-room flea-ridden manse with 8 cats and attic dwelling raccoons they fed Wonder Bread and cat food. Though you learn that they were almost evicted for reasons of sanitation and health, you don’t learn that Jackie and her sister Lee paid for the renovations necessary to block the eviction. Neither do you learn about their lawyer-son and brother, Bouvier, who washed his hands of them but paid their back taxes. They talk to, at, over each other and sometimes simply deliver simultaneous parallel monologues to the camera they know is recording. They bicker about their respective pasts, they bemoan opportunities squandered and lost. Sometimes the monologue that intersect, sometimes they don’t. They celebrate birthdays with friends who come to this strange house for cake and wine. They are often happy and are proudly protective of their singular, symbiotic lives together. They couldn’t be who they wanted to be in their early years so, damn the rest, they’ll be what they are despite or to spite anyone else’s sense of who they should be. But in reality they talk only about themselves and their own lives. They don’t talk about others.
Watching this dyad was like viewing a mother-daughter, real-time “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” melded with Frederick Wiseman’s “Titticut Follies” expose of conditions inside a Massachusetts penitentiary for the criminally insane. It’s not external cruelty inducing this, or is it? Was it their experience of entitled powerlessness These two are women who defiantly live one step from an asylum. Would we watch this train wreck if they weren’t tied to the Kennedy clan? What is it about the fallen socialites of the pre-WWII period that makes this into a Gatsby on acid?