Albert Maysles

Was ‘Grey Gardens’ Exploitative?

The documentary was an early version of today’s shameless reality TV. But in the wake of filmmaker Albert Maysles's death, it’s clear the Edies stand for so much more.

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When Albert Maysles and his brother David released Grey Gardens, their 1975 documentary about a fallen mother-daughter duo in East Hampton, they were rightly celebrated for a hallmark work of cinema vérité. But now that “direct cinema” has been widely co-opted, most notably by reality TV, where its regular practice to leave the camera rolling for several grisly moments as various Hollywood wannabes self-sabotage, what stands out about Grey Gardens, a few days after Albert’s death, at the age of 88, is how it established that two women—aged, living in squalor, and “eccentric,” as their peers would’ve said with a raised eyebrow—were worthy of our consideration. Not as objects of scorn but of fascination. Just as worthy, it turned out, as an all-male rock band at the height of their powers, which, of course, was the subject of Gimme Shelter, the Maysles documentary about the Rolling Stones a few years earlier. They were women imprisoned by the code of their gender and the era, doomed to perform their act only for each other until the Maysles came along.

By the time the Maysles caught up with the Beale women—both named Edith Bouvier Beale, or “Big Edie” and “Little Edie,” respectively—they were the kind of faded debutantes typically passed over by the camera and real people alike. Of course, that wasn’t always the case; in the 1930s, they were socialites regaling the upper crust with the talents of the well-raised female: singing and dancing. Big Edie’s niece was Jackie Kennedy Onassis; in fact, the former First Lady (and her sister Lee Radziwill) rescued the pair when they were nearly thrown out of their 14-room manse for squalor a few years before filming started. Onassis’s financial interventions only did so much to stave off the damage inflicted by bad habits. In one of the most excruciating scenes of the film, Little Edie pours out a pile of Wonder Bread and cat food for the felines and raccoons creeping in and out of the attic.

Grey Gardens is a study in charm and decrepitude and how they coexist in two women trained to live a certain kind of high-class life. Pitching between ripe comedy and something darker, Big Edie sings an old show tune in her parlor room lilt from the filthy perch of her bed. The Beale women were the best drag performers of the era, if you believe that drag is at once a send-up and a loving homage to the trappings of womanhood. Ever aware of the costumes and performance of femininity, Little Edie especially seems at once inspired and constrained. Wrapping shirts until they become turbans, and lounging in bathing suits like they’re pajamas, she wants to change the very way female clothes function. “You can always use the skirt as a cape!” she explains about one of her get-ups. (Such inventiveness worked for Andy Warhol, who praised her wrapping style as “very glamorous.”)

Little Edie’s chafing against the norms extends far beyond clothes. In one of their endless squabbles, Big Edie accuses her daughter of squandering her marital prospects—at least one suitor’s ring was returned, though it’s also revealed that Big Edie apparently chased another one off the front porch. A free spirit who moved to New York to pursue the arts, Little Edie avoided marriage—which would’ve meant giving up her dreams—yet she still wistfully reads the description of “the Libran husband” out of an astrology book she scans with a magnifying glass. A decade or two later, Little Edie could’ve stayed in New York for that big break, and married a man. But back then, marriage meant housebound domesticity, not flights of fancy.

The great irony of Little Edie’s story is that when she moved back to Grey Gardens in 1952 after living in New York, she did enter a housebound relationship of sorts—one with her own mother. Their dynamic was saddled by competition, back-biting, and questioning who fouled up the woman script worse: Big Edie, for not having a man take care of her to the bitter end, or Little Edie, for never getting one in the first place. When the camera turns on the Beales, they compete for its attention like its an heir to the Rockefeller fortune. (By the way, one of those camera operators was a young man named George Lucas.) They hammed it up for the camera, but they were hamming it up for themselves, too, as a point of pride. Trilling or pirouetting was how they showed they were women of distinction and taste.

One of the pleasures of watching Grey Gardens now is the thrill of watching two women, in the parlance of our time, have zero fucks to give. Or is it a tragedy? Have they passed the point of caring what anyone else thinks, or are they deluded about how they appear? In the best moments, whatever it is comes off as feminism meets stiff upper lip. In one of her most passionate moments, Little Edie, adjusting one of her many head wrap–broach combos, says there’s “nothing worse than dealing with a staunch woman. They don’t weaken.”

Drag is often about being an underdog who might temporarily get knocked down by the world’s judgment and abuses but who will always get back up, lipstick smeared, wig akimbo. Hence the perennial attraction for drag performers to women who have taken some knocks and/or rose up from humble roots—Judy Garland and her daughter, Liza Minnelli; Madonna, and Beyoncé. Madonna, now 56, the same age as Little Edie in Grey Gardens, has bucked the idea that “acting her age” means no longer dancing bare-legged on stage, with several waxed-chest males on hand to writhe against. “This is me,” Madge said recently to Entertainment Tonight, “This is how I wanna be. I can do what I want, okay?”

For a moment, after her mother died in 1977, Little Edie caught a glimmer of the same kind of freedom. Working as a cabaret singer in New York, she fielded questions after her show about her life. She waved aside any notions that she was being exploited. “This is something I’ve been planning since I was 19,” she said. “I don’t care what they say about me—I’m just going to have a ball.” A few years later, she retreated to Florida where she died in 2002. One can imagine the sentiment burbling up in Little Edie in the same way if she were alive today—but she’d be freer to say it, loud and proud.


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