Grey Gardens is a Cinéma vérité documentary feature that shreds all preconceived notions of the love a mother and daughter can share. Director Albert Maysles tells the story of Edith “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Beale, two women who live in squalor on their once prominent estate called Grey Gardens. Through careful production element decisions concerning sets, characters, and direction, the ladies are able to articulate the truth behind their decision to stay in the dark. Maysles’ hands-off approach is enlightening and the film itself is a testament to honest storytelling.
Grey Gardens was an estate given to Big Edie by her former husband Phelan Beale. His financial well being and the fact that Edie is the aunt of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, allowed for the estate to flourish for decades. After her divorce, however, Big Edie could not afford the upkeep of the home, which led to its dilapidation by the early 1970’s. With a decrepit house as the main “set” of Grey Gardens, Maysles was able to show how desperate these women are to feel a part of the life they once knew. Big Edie never remarried, nor did she ever leave the estate for any reason. Her daughter loved her mother dearly and decided to remain in poverty, sleeping with raccoons, maggots, feces, and other un-delightful guests.
For example, each room inside Grey Gardens is treated like a “set”. Little Edie’s room was once a beautiful garden room with a view of the grounds. Maysles intentionally allowed the camera to scan all sides of the room while Edie was giving a guided tour. His unobscured look at the state of the room allowed for a radical contrast between the upbeat demeanor of Little Edie and the downtrodden state of the room she delightfully boasts about. Another example of a well-established “set” are the actual grounds of Grey Gardens. Big Edie does most of the narration during this tour, but Maysles is able to capture the abhorrent overgrowth infesting the land and the house itself. To see such a well educated, formerly rich socialite clash with the state of affairs in her home makes for great documentary filmmaking.
Big Edie and Little Edie are two of the most eccentric individuals ever recorded. Their love for one another is admirable, but their conscious decision to stay in a house infested by fleas, inhabited by wildlife, absent of running water, and filled with garbage and decay astounds even the most optimistic of critics. Maysles treats the women as objectively as possible by letting them tell their own stories. Being as “crazy” as they are, the film could have been misconstrued in so many radical ways, but Maysles stayed true to his word and was honest in his storytelling.
For example, there is a scene in the film where Big Edie is telling a story of her first time laying eyes on the property. The story was so heartfelt and honest that the audience almost begins to understand her madness. Her child was born there. Her husband loved her there. She felt welcome at Grey Gardens, regardless of her eccentric and often destructive personality.
Albert Maysles and his direct cinema technique helped tell the story of Grey Gardens because he did not need to add much to get his point across. Here are these two fascinating women living in shit and loving it. His framing was honest and the narrative was true. The ladies were not ostracized or even pitied. They were given a rare opportunity to tell the world how they felt.
Grey Gardens is a fantastic look at a vein of American society not experienced by many in our culture. The only comparison that comes to mind is the show Hoarders, which focuses on similar subjects that cannot seem to get a grasp on their lowly living situations. Albert Maysles made the film in the 1970’s and it is still relevant today because its audience does not want to be fooled. They want the truth.