Why does ‘Grey Gardens’ leave a sour taste in the mouth?

Hollywood Soapbox logoGrey Gardens, the seminal documentary from the directing team of Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Muffie Meyer, is undoubtedly interesting and infectious. It’s difficult not to peer into the lives of Little Edie Bouvier Beale and her ailing mother with wonderment, and the doc’s influence spreads to today’s Catfish phenomenon.

The cousins of Jackie Kennedy lived in a dilapidated mansion on Long Island, and their day-to-day activities were odd, reclusive and filled with cats. The access the directors have to the women (filmed in the 1970s) is remarkable. This is an intimate portrait of a mother and daughter living with each other despite the fact they can’t stand each other’s company.

Still, despite our innate desire to watch these subjects, Grey Gardens feels like the definition of exploitation. These two women seem competent and open to the cameras, but one wonders if they truly know why the audiences are watching their daily activities. I’m not sure the movie says anything about society or culture — perhaps family dynamics and unfulfilled dreams, but that’s a stretch. Instead, it feels like we’ve nabbed a bunch of home videos and decided to make fun of the characters. The story of Little Edie and her mother has no cultural significance (except for the fact that Grey Gardens itself has become iconic), and if they weren’t cousins of Jackie Kennedy, they would probably not have been profiled in the first place.

Grey Gardens will always cause controversy, and film buffs will always debate the true meanings and motives behind the film. I’m not sure there’s a better example of a watchable film that can simultaneously turn one’s stomach. The scenes in the documentary are bizarre and yet somehow wholesome. It’s obvious that Little Edie and her mother are good people and original to the bone.

Little Edie, for example, walks around the house with an upside-down shirt tied around her head. She puts on makeup and sings out-of-tune songs for the camera. She’s also never too far from a dance number, a yell at her mother or a paranoid confessional to the camera about some outside influence that is changing her life.

Edith, Little Edie’s mother, sits in bed with garbage, food and cats piling up around her. She also sings, remembering the good old days when her family would fine dine with family and friends. She looks at her daughter, who never married or fulfilled her singing career, as a failure. And yet, as Edith derides Little Edie’s lack of progress, it becomes clear that these two are planets keeping each other’s gravity in check. It’s hard to imagine a life where Edith and Little Edie are separated. They lean on each other, although they’re also terribly independent.

The only other characters in the documentary are those few people allowed into Grey Gardens. There’s a handyman and some relatives who visit, but they all look somewhat shocked at the squalor and oddity of how Edith and Little Edie live.

It’s easy to see why Grey Gardens has spawned a cinematic remake and a Broadway musical. These two characters are American originals, but don’t expect to watch this documentary and feel good about yourself. Just because we can look, doesn’t mean it’s right.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Grey Gardens

  • 1975

  • Directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Muffie Meyer

  • Featuring Little Edie Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale

  • Running time: 94 minutes

  • Rating: ★★☆☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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