The mother/daughter relationship is a profound one and not often placed under the microscope. In 1976, two filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles (co-directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) chose to do just that with their documentary, Grey Gardens, which the Criterion Collection restored a few years back, and released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.
The Grey Gardens of the title is a 14-room house in the Georgica Pond neighbourhood of East Hampton, owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her then-husband Phelan. Upon divorce, Phelan provided his wife, Big Edie and their daughter Little Edie with living costs. Once those funds had dried up, the house fell into disrepair and in ’72 the Suffolk County attempted to evict the two women and demolish the property. The press’ interest lay in whom the Beale’s were related to, one-time First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Like with all documentaries, there is a level of manipulation, almost certainly, voyeurism and a vested interest in the subjects viewed. This is one of the few that appears to have no ulterior motive other than depicting Big Edie and Little Edie just as they are/were. It is a wonderfully weird piece of work; a character study of almost morbid fascination about privilege, crumbling Patriotism, and those two extraordinary women who thrived amongst reclusive squalor and the crumbling detritus of their lives.
There is a home-video quality to Grey Gardens which although beautifully restored still contains a graininess which adds to its authenticity and intimacy. Often filmed outside, the natural lighting means that colours within the frame are stunning as Little Edie takes centre stage in her colourful ensembles and jewellery adorned headscarves. At times, it is hard to avert one’s eyes from what is onscreen, their eccentricities are, initially, hard to comprehend but both women have such warmth and veracity that the audience is soon taken in. One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is the lack of narrative time – the only indication is the dilapidated wall within the large expanse of foyer in the house and the noticeable hole in the wall gets bigger as the raccoon they share the house with (along with some 52 feral cats) makes itself a home.
Observing these two amazing women are the Maysles brothers who strike up such a seemingly genuine rapport with our main ‘characters’ that it is truly a joy to experience. In one of the disc extras, within the confines of the
scrapbook, it is stated that: “A few years ago, two brothers fell in love with a mother and her daughter.” Thanks to Criterion’s 4K restoration of the original negative we get to experience this visually beautiful love story first hand, sound quality is sublime and the mono track reproduces Little Edie and her mater’s dulcet singing voice to perfection.
Grey Gardens shows us a tender, loving and, at times argumentative, mother-daughter relationship; full of ups and downs and yet their commitment to each other and their way of life never faltered. Both are unapologetically wonderful and weird in equal measure. We should all embrace a Little Edie.