Sunday, June 24, 2007

Grey Gardens (Movie Review)

Reviews of this 1975 documentary give it a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes — and though I certainly think the kudos is well-deserved, my fascination for the film dealt more so with what the two women represented individually, rather than the mother-daughter relationship (the focus for so many film critics) or even their connections to American aristocracy.

Grey Gardens chronicles the life of Jackie Kennedy Onassis' aunt (Edith Bouvier Beale) and her daughter, Edie. The two lived alone in squalor in a dilapidated 28-room mansion in East Hampton for over 20 years; at one point in the early 70s, the health board even threatened to condemn Grey Gardens — Jackie O. paid some $32,000 (a lot more when you consider inflation) to have the house restored to a living condition so that the Beales could continue to occupy this once breathtaking estate.

After the repairs, the Beales still did little to maintain their home. In fact, they'd dump bags of cat food onto attic floors to feed the local raccoons, and failed to do normal household chores even when guests were imminent.

Suffice it to say their living situation (which made national headlines) — coupled with their bloodline — caught the attention of directors Albert and David Maysles.

The Maysles style of direction was initially difficult to get used to. They didn't want to intrude on the Beale's way of life, so no other members of the "crew" were ever admitted to the house. Additionally, the brothers themselves function neither as flies-on-the-wall nor as active participants conducting interviews. Rather, they're somewhere in the middle, never introducing themselves, and yet sometimes responding to comments from Edith (79 at the time of the filming) and Edie (then 56) from behind the camera.

I eventually grew to appreciate this technique when I realized just how rare it was for the Beales to welcome anyone into their home.

Now before you assume the Beales are nuts — as I did prior to watching this — allow me to say I found them to be perfectly normal. Given their circumstances, that is. Rumor has it they lived on a pension of just $300 a month, and were only able to make ends meet by regularly selling off furniture and family heirlooms... a burglary in the late 60s served only to exacerbate this already difficult situation.

However you look at it, I was fond of them both — Edie in particular. She sings and dances for the camera; laments her past; and even shares her religious beliefs, revealing herself to be a devout Catholic with an affinity for astrology.

Her apathy for the caretaking of Grey Gardens — and her absolute disdain for the property itself — was to me indicative not so much of insanity, as it was a resignation for her life. She's obsessed with her dreams, past and present, and is altogether absorbed with regret.

She takes after her mother in this regard, as both reveal (through bickering) all they had once-upon-a-time hoped to become (and the people/circumstances they blame for holding them back).

I don't know what this says about me but I, for one, felt a bit uncomfortable when I realized just how easy it was for me to relate to the Beales.

Probably for the best there's no family mansion for me to retreat to.



disgruntled world citizen said...

Let me start by saying this: I love Criterion Collection DVDs. I have more than I need, I know this and I accept it. So, I gave Grey Gardens a try. I had to get it twice. I just couldn't watch it. It was painful.

With that being said, I finally got through it the second time I got it (through Netflix). And it was painful, really it was, but at the same time, it was fascinating, in car-wreck-watching kind of way. As if Grey Gardens wasn't enough, the directors released a second film called Beals of Grey Gardens. That has more footage. That, too, is available through Criterion.

The reason I was so interested in the movie was it has been turned into a Broadway show, which subsequently won a couple of Tony awards.

Winter said...

Did you know that Mary-Kate lists Edith Bouvier Beale as one of her fashion icons?

I read way too much Vouge :)

disgruntled world citizen said...

Winter, that's just sad. Not that you read Vogue, the Mary-Kate thing.