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a home + living guide for the post-college, pre-parenthood, quasi-adult generation

01.16.2003

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Grey Gardens
1975
By: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Froemke
Starring: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edie Bouvier Beale Jr.
Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: documentary
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: true?!?, witty
The critic says: ˝/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5

Plot synopsis Grey Gardens is the true story of elderly, peculiar Edith Bouvier Beale and her wacky, fashion-challenged (or –inspired, depending upon how you look at it), middle-aged daughter, who happens to share the same name. Big Edie and Little Edie, as they’re generally referred to by friends and family, enjoy a certain amount of fame thanks to their relationship (aunt and cousin) to Jackie O, but it’s the decrepit state of the once grand East Hampton estate, Grey Gardens, that both women call home that’s earned them local infamy. Surrounded by multi-gazillion-dollar mansions on one of the most exclusive strips of shore in America, the Beales live in downright squalor in a gargantuan 28-room house that’s so far past its prime that local authorities have deemed it a health hazard, inflicting a series of raids upon the house in an attempt to get its inhabitants to shape up or move out. The walls are crumbling, the paint faded and peeled, the wood floors rotting and covered in litter –- not to mention the fact that the house is completely over-run by raccoons, stray cats and the accompanying smells and pests (fleas galore) that go hand-in-hand with wild animals. But for Big Edie, it’s her beloved home, the one place in the world where she was always happy as a young woman, free to entertain the bohemian friends her upper-crust husband and family never approved of, and to sing to her heart’s content. Little Edie’s own relationship to Grey Gardens is a bit more complicated – as a beautiful young thirty-something model and wannabe actress/dancer living in New York City, she was summoned to Grey Gardens decades ago to care for her ailing mother, and has felt stuck there ever since. As mother and daughter trade clever quips and barbs, we learn more about the glamorous days of their youths, and get a peek into one of the most devoted, dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships ever captured on film.

Review My boy and I are both suckers for documentaries about the amusing eccentricities of real-life people, and stumbled upon Grey Gardens quite by accident in the new releases section of my fabulous local video shop. It was only afterwards, when we went through the DVD’s extras, that we learned that the film is a cult classic of sorts, beloved by many (particularly those in the fashion design industry, for whom Little Edie has become a veritable fashion icon). What’s amazing to me is to realize that so many people out there saw the same film I did, and still ended up admiring the Beales. Where I saw a crazy, manipulative, controlling mother and her loony, dependent daughter, others fell in love with two brazen oddballs, firmly committed to marching to the beats of their own different drummers, outside world be damned. True, both Edies, like the big estate they call home, have a bigger-than-life beauty that shines through the shambles: like an ancient ruin, their loveliness lies largely in the reminder of how astonishingly grand and gorgeous they were way back when, and their stubborn refusal to let the rest of the world tell them they’re any less fabulous now, despite the shabbiness brought on by age and possible mental imbalance. There’s also no denying that though the Beales may lack sense, they have wit to spare: Grey Gardens is chock-full of eminently quotable quips that the Edies seem to toss off effortlessly. Still, while I’m all for individuality, there’s a difference between being a little quirky, and having serious mental issues. And when I see a 53-year-old woman whining to her mother like a 10-year-old, or an 80-year-old woman gleefully letting one of her many stray cats pee in her pig-sty of a room – again -- it just makes me sad.  Fortunately, I don’t have to want to be buddies with the people in a movie to find their story compelling, and cinéma vérité pioneers Albert and David Maysles document the Edies beautifully, not judging their subjects in the least.  Regardless of how you feel about the Edies after catching a glimpse into their world, there’s no denying that their lives make for fascinating film fodder indeed. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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