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East of Edie: How Grey Gardens Changed the Documentary

Once upon there was a beautiful house that represented the American dream. Inside the house, there were two beautiful, sophisticated socialites, who were part of the upper elite. People to be admired and respected. But, the years passed, and the years were unkind. Slowly, the house began to decay, with the vermin and cats overrunning the mansion, the rooms became full of junk, over spilling as the house struggled to contain the years of memories.

The two women who became the subjects of Grey Gardens were both called Edie. Their full ”offical” names were Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (1895–1977), known as “Big Edie”, and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (1917–2002), known as “Little Edie”. They were the aunt and the first cousin, respectively, of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The house at the centre of this story was designed in 1897 by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe, and purchased in 1923 by “Big Edie” and her husband, Phelan Beale. After Phelan left his wife, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” lived there for more than 50 years, alone and isolated from the world, but happy with their lives. The house was called Grey Gardens because of the color of the dunes, the cement garden walls, and the sea mist.

For years, it was a symbol of class superiority, a place that only the ordinary person could dream about. Then something happened, throughout the fall of 1971 and into 1972, their living conditions – their house was infested by fleas, inhabited by numerous cats and raccoons, deprived of running water, and filled with garbage and decay – were exposed. This was as the result of an article in the National Enquirer, and a cover story in New York Magazine, after a series of inspections (which the Beales called “raids” in the documentary) by the Suffolk County Health Department.

Grey Gardens

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers (Albert and David Maysles) are part of the action, and the film details their story as well. They interact with Big Edie and little Edie, who make the brothers part of their home, showing genuine affection and kindness. Their arrivals are events, their presence is a fundamental point of reference for the Beales, who have long-lived as recluses. Each of them looks to the filmmakers to validate her position in a dispute with the other, both of them perform  for the filmmakers’ camera and often break into song.

Little Edie, in her mid-fifties, often breaks into long monlogue where she discusses her regrets of never marrying. She flaunts her crush on David Maysles, and flirts openly towards him, which reveal so much about her character in a way that a traditional documentary wouldn’t be able to capture.

The two Edie’s seem so relaxed around the filmmakers that they reveal so much about who they are, this is their chance to be who they really are. It’s very open and frank, revealing perhaps too much about their life, with the shots of empty gin bottles in the rubble-strewn bedroom, cats urinating on the bed, racoons emerging from holes in the walls. And in one scene, we see a cat piss on a portrait of Big Edie, which Little Edie exclaims how awful it is. For her mother to reply back with “No, I’m glad he is. I’m glad somebody’s doing something he wanted to do.” Big Edie has passed the point of caring about her status, the cat’s wellbeing is more important than her portrait, we can all admire that.

Grey Gardens

The subject of the film is all about the deconstruction of performance. And this doesn’t just mean the performance of singing (which both Little and Big Edie do often). I am referring to the act of socializing, and fitting into a society that rejects originality.

The documentary brings up the sociological theory of ‘role theory’, which is a perspective in sociology and in social psychology that considers most of everyday activity to be the acting out of socially defined categories (e.g., mother, manager, teacher). Each role is a set of rights, duties, expectations, norms, and behaviors that a person has to face and fulfill. The model is based on the observation that people behave in a predictable way, and that an individual’s behavior is context specific, based on social position and other factors. The theatre is a metaphor often used to describe role theory, which is interesting considering the Beales love for the dramatic.

The Beale women were expected to behave a certain way, and had to fit a role that society had designated them. Little Edie was expected to marry and act like a passive lady, but she was a free spirit who lived her life how she wanted to. As Little Edie puts it, “[But] you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman.”

In a way, Little Edie is a prime example of a feminist, because she didn’t allow society to dictate who she was and wouldn’t allow herself to be pigeonholed into a particular role. In fact at one point of the film she says “If you can’t get a man to propose to you, you might as well be dead.” Little Edie statement reveals that she knew that her beauty and status could be used to her advantage, and rather than she this as a negative thing, she celebrated her beauty. But when it began to disappear (like the beauty of the house), she lost her sense of direction.

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens made quite a splash on its initial release, and not always in a good way. The Maysles were accused of exploiting their subjects and betraying the tenets of the “direct-cinema” movement, to which they were deemed to belong to. The non-intrusive fly-on-the-wall approach – do nothing to influence or affect the things you are filming – suddenly seems inappropriate, given the presence of two characters who are always performing and are addicted to drama.

What the Maysles managed to do with Grey Gardens, is treat Big Edie and Little Edie with respect. They displayed their eccentricities, but did not create caricatures or targets for people to laugh at. Grey Gardens, to many, paved the way for reality TV, it changed the landscape of documentary, and whether that was for the better is for up to debate, but there’s no denying its impact. The women regained their status, and became infamous, maybe it wasn’t in the way they wanted, but all publicity, is good publicity right?


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