Love and squalor: how Grey Gardens changed the documentary genre

Part Miss Havisham, part Warhol superstars, movie about eccentric pair living in a crumbling Long Island estate was a big step away from fly-on-the-wall films

A 40th anniversary celebration of the documentary Grey Gardens in the Hamptons seems an appropriate moment to look at it again, not least because its protagonists, Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, themselves seem to live approximately 40 years in the past. Captured by the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, in the excremental squalor of their once-magnificent, now faded, rodent-infested Long Island estate, the pair more like competitive sisters than mother and daughter bicker and squabble, reconcile, sing old show tunes and, most of all, dwell on the vanished Atlantis of their glory days, a time of cotillions, debutante balls, summer estates, swimming parties, the Social Register, ceaseless champagne and splendid wealth. Abandoned by Big Edies husband in 1931, mother and daughter were left to the not-so-tender mercies of their relative Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jacqueline, who, by Little Edies account, promptly appropriated their inheritance for his own daughters and left them to decay in an ever more dilapidated Grey Gardens.

They came to the Maysless attention after a local news item in 1971 described two cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy living in a garbage-infested, filthy, 28-room house with eight cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water conditions so unsanitary that the Suffolk County Health Dept has ordered them to clean up or face eviction. Jackie (by then Jackie O) came to the rescue with a $32,000 donation and a clean-up crew who removed 1,000 bags of trash from the premises.

Thats the thing I always forget about Grey Gardens: the squalor that the pair live in cats peeing behind portraits, crapping on every available surface, raccoons rampant beyond the drywall is how the place looked after the cleanup. New York Times reporter Gail Sheehy, who visited the place at the high tide of its awfulness in 1971, remembered encrusted cat shit underfoot and being given a chilling version of Jackie Kennedys famous White House tour by Little Edie. The Maysles spent a year getting to know the Edies and then set about capturing their strange little castaway universe of ecstatic nostalgia and present-day ruination.

And what a pair they make. Trapped in a world of memory and sic transit gloria mundi, they instantly call to mind indelible, time-trapped and memory-ridden figures such as Miss Havisham and Estella, or old Miss Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! And their camp appeal is off the chart: the more they squabble, the more one is reminded of Bette and Joan in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? And the resemblance they bear to Divine and Edith the Egg Lady Massey in Pink Flamingos, released two years earlier, is so eerie one is almost prepared to credit John Waters with ESP. Theres a Blanche Dubois/Tennessee Williams echo to all of it as well, noted by the film-makers themselves as they arrive to film as the movie begins. Its the Maysles! cries Little Edie in delight as she opens the door. Your gentlemen-callers! beams Albert, with a little nod to The Glass Menagerie, and perhaps to Williamss entire universe of faded beauties and shipwrecked aristocrats on their uppers.

The Edies also feel like de facto Warhol superstars, the kind of talentless, unselfconscious chatterboxes who nevertheless emit a grungy, low-wattage version of stardom and fabulousness. Little Edies ingenious scarves (constructed of anything but actual scarves) and her insane makeshift skirts (ditto), to say nothing of her incessant singing and her flag-waving Yankee-Doodle-Dandy dance in the hallway, make her something of a female drag queen and, indeed, within months of the movies release, every drag act in America had worked up some Edie-related material.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> The film made a splash and not always in a good way. Photograph: Criterion collection

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, principally by dint of their 1969 masterpiece Salesman, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre. The American documentary movement was a much more ideologically disputatious field then than it is now. This was the era of Barbara Kopples Harlan County USA, about a brutal coal strike in Kentucky; the collectively filmed Winter Soldier, in which ex-GIs confessed to horrifying atrocities theyd committed in Vietnam; Emile De Antonios Underground, a secretly filmed interview with fugitive members of the Weather Underground; and the steady gaze of Frederick Wisemans early work on American institutions the Marine Corps, high school, city police departments and lunatic asylums.

In retrospect, Grey Gardens especially with its long afterlife of Tony-nominated musicals, Little Edies own (terrible) cabaret revue in 1978, and a 2009 HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange does seem to bid adieu to the golden age of 60s documentary that come into being after the introduction of cheaper and more portable cameras around 1960, and the simultaneous solidification of the ideas behind direct-cinema and cinema-verite. 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. Indeed, the presence of the camera itself prompts everything we see, and becomes itself the story of the film: an audience necessitates a performance, and what performances we get.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/14/grey-gardens-anniversary-hamptons-documentary

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