Few documentaries have as rich a legacy as Grey Gardens. In addition to its own cult following, this film has inspired such illustrious adaptations as an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as well as a Broadway musical that won three Tony Awards. Out of all of the documentaries directed by acclaimed filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, why is this the one that has struck such a chord with generations of audiences?
This documentary is about Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale and Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale, respectively former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s cousin and aunt. They live in a deteriorating, decrepit estate in East Hampton, New York known as “Grey Gardens.” The Maysles film them going through old photos and rehashing old arguments, less interested in constructing a tight narrative than in letting the audience spend time with the distinctive personalities of two idiosyncratic women.
The Maysles and their editors Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke heighten this sense of letting the audience spend 95 minutes with the Edies through their immersive technical style. Their static medium shots and tendency to let takes breathe (as opposed to a flurry of jump cuts) makes you feel like you are in Grey Gardens as Little Edie argues with her mother or indulges her passion for dancing. The Maysles Brothers and their editing team are not above including moments when their subjects address them — most amusingly when Big Edie tells them that they’re “wasting that thing [their camera] on this [Little Edie’s latest argument with her] cause that’s just nuts” — but they excel at absorbing you into the world of Grey Gardens by shining as bright a spotlight as they can on their subjects. Especially Little Edie.
From the moment that Little Edie explains to David and Albert that her outfit is the “best costume for the day,” before conspiratorially whispering that she had a big argument with Big Edie about that outfit, it is clear that she is a performer at heart. While Big Edie occasionally seems to disdain the constant filming from the Maysles (even though she’ll let them film her showing off her surprisingly good singing voice), Little Edie seems to come alive whenever they’re filming her. Some people would shy away from dancing in front of a camera. But after Little Edie dances with an American flag, she laughs and excitedly says, “Darling David, where have you been all my life?” Little Edie’s sense of seeming to want him and Albert to film every second of the rest of her life prefigures The Truman Show and the rise of everything from reality TV to livestreaming. She was certainly ahead of her time.
For me, it is the film’s emphasis on its characters that has enabled it to endure for so long. The creepy setting of Grey Gardens — complete with cats and raccoons — is interesting, but Little Edie and Big Edie are such rich subjects that they transcend their surroundings. They’re the type of gregarious figures that would feel right at home in a Dickens novel, but seeing them be their eccentric selves in real time adds a unique pleasure that you cannot get from any form of media that is not a documentary. Even though this film’s legacy contains adaptations of its story across different forms of media, the original will continue to fascinate anyone who is willing to spend time listening to Little Edie and Big Edie.
Grey Gardens will be in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room from February 10-24 as part of the series 10 Years, 10 Films, 10 Perspectives. You will be able to stream the film for free to the device of your choosing via a link and password which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and password.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.