Grey Gardens documents a summer that Albert Maysles, and his brother David, spent with two women living in their disgusting, dilapidated mansion. These aren’t just any women either, Edith Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Beale were the affluent relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy. I do think this movie loses a bit of its luster due to runtime, but before then it is very interesting to watch and Edie and her mother are at the center of that interest.
But before I dive into the Beales I need to talk about Grey Garden itself. Grey Garden is the mansion, or more specifically the grounds the mansion is on which the movie takes place at. I don’t know the exacts but to me it seems like the place has been run down for a good while, 20 years at least, a long time sure, but it really looks like it got hit with a god damn trash nuke. And the movie doesn’t even highlight it as much as it could have, there are pictures that were not featured in the movie showing the true state of the house, and its mind boggling. It’s obvious that the Beales have really expedited the decaying of the house. There is garbage piled on garbage, raccoons in the walls, and stray cats pissing on the floors. It really seems like they have been trying to make this place as disgusting as possible.
There is even a scene where Edie sets up a pile of Wonderbread and cat food, to feed the damn raccoons! Who feeds raccoons? It’s insane yet she does it as if it were any normal household chore. This was really the point where I knew these women were not just down on their luck, or whatever to justify their condition, but are genuinely mentally ill.
Edith and Edie are often labeled eccentric when this movie is brought up, but I think they go well beyond eccentric. Eccentricity implies someone is functional at least, these women are not functional in the slightest. They have no jobs and seem to have nearly run out of money from their “previous life” causing them to live in complete squalor. The Beales seem to eat almost exclusively pâté and ice cream, and they spend most of their time on their balcony sunbathing or in their cat and bug infested bedroom reminiscing of older days.
It’s sweet at first, seeing the old pictures of the Beales in their former glory, but it quickly turns sour. I think I truly realized the dynamic of these women at this point. They are entirely stuck in the past, and it’s like they had totally given up on living if they couldn’t live in opulence. They think there is no middle ground between living like queens and living like raccoons, and they have no problem with it either. And they used to live like royalty until, from what I gathered, Edith left her husband and then just never did anything. Edith burned through most of her money, guilted Edie to move back with her and then they continued to do nothing. To me Edith is the sole reason they live as they do, she has manipulated her mentally ill daughter to care for her as well as enabling her mental instability. She even told her to continue living in Grey Gardens after she died. I’m not saying that Edith masterminded all of this, as I’m sure she was mentally unsound as well, but she is surely the cause of their strife and poor lives.
Thankfully Little Edie ignores her mother’s desires and sells Grey Gardens to move to New York after her mother died in 1977, and apparently she did have a short cabaret career there. But sadly that seems to be all she managed before she passed away in 2002. It’s a rather sad end to a very sad story, and that’s really the feeling you get during the movie, sadness.
Everything about this movie is depressing, especially scenes like when a record of Edith singing is put on, and she has a wonderful voice, or when Edie dances and you see she is having fun and really passionate about it. To me though seeing the photos of their younger selves is really what put me over the edge. It is truly heart-wrenching to see them happy and young, and then see them living as they do, obviously no longer caring for themselves.
While I think this movie is very interesting, I do think that it kind of over stays it’s welcome, detracting from the power of the film. Specifically I think there are probably too many scenes of Edie talking to herself at the camera. While these scenes are vital to understanding her, and seeing that she is really mentally ill, there are many of them. It’s a bit unfortunate because I really enjoy this movie, but can’t help but lose interest after a while. It seems like you have seen everything the movie has to offer around forty minutes in. This is a pretty small complaint though as the movie is already pretty short.
This movie is probably the truest look at hoarders. It does not just ogle over how gross they are, although its hard to ignore, it really focuses on the mental state these women are in. It is an endearing and bleak, one of a kind documentary, and after watching it I couldn’t help but think how many other people live as they do having fallen from grace, their lives in shambles with nobody left to care for them.
You should also google pictures of the house now after you’ve watched the movie.