Grey Gardens (1976)
Directed by: Albert & David Maysles & Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer.
There will always be a question in documentary filmmaking about whether filmmakers are exploiting their subject or not – and it’s something that seems to come up every time Grey Gardens is discussed. The film, one of the most famous of all documentaries, is about Big Edie Beale and her daughter, Little Edie Beale, living in a dilapidated mansion that looks like a wreck from the outside, and even worse on the inside. The Beales came to the attention of the filmmakers – brothers Albert & David Maysles, along with co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer – because they were distant relatives of Jackie Onassis – but the filmmakers found them so fascinating, they just kept coming back. The film was made just a few years before Big Edie died, and it portrays the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship warts in all – the two of them bicker constantly, sometimes passive-aggressively, and sometimes not so passively. They are, to put it kindly, eccentric. They have the trappings of wealth – the large house in the rich neighbor, accent that denote class and “breeding” – but the money isn’t quite there anymore. Big Edie’s husband – Little Edie’s father – left them years ago, and there isn’t a lot of talk about him. Little Edie never married, although there is talk of a stream of gentlemen suitors that she hated – and regrets of not heading to Europe when the war started like so many of her friends – who ended up married – did.
Grey Gardens is about memory and regret – and about how these two women are trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of misery, argument, accusations, forgiveness and then back again. Little Edie keeps threatening to go back to New York – she was happy in New York once, and live the life she was meant to – the life she could have lived, if her mother didn’t need her so much. Her mother pokes and prods her right back – telling her she doesn’t need her as much as Little Edie thinks. To a certain degree, both of them are constantly performing for each other – they both need each other, and neither want to admit that they need each other, which shows just how much they really do. Both of them are constantly performing – although you get the impression that even if they Maysles and their cameras were not there, the two Beale women would be doing to same thing. Both of the women are theatrical by nature – and while they love having the camera on them, I don’t think the absence of them would have caused the pair to stop performing.
I know the Maysles and company have always claimed that the film is not exploitive, but if we’re being honest it is – at least in part. Little Edie’s flamboyant monologues are often quite funny, and we are certainly invited to laugh during the course of the movie, but are we laughing at the Beales? They don’t seem to be laughing, so perhaps we are. And yet, the film also gives the Beales precisely what they want – and they seemed to no regrets about it. They are being given an audience – at first of just the Maysles brothers themselves, and ultimately to millions of others. And the brothers wisely let the Beales tell their own story completely – whether or not that’s the truth. Whatever happened to lead the pair to live this way, what happened to the house, why they’re alone, and why they’re only living in a few rooms of a huge home – is a story that the Maysles could probably have explored from another point of view – or at least given wider context. They don’t though – and that’s for the best. The film is about memory more than anything, and why let facts or context interfere with that?