Featuring “Big” and “Little” Edith Beale
Directed by: Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Distributed by: The Criterion Collection
Working on Friday Film Review for over two years now, I do believe I have made a few of my opinions quite clear:
1. I believe it is impossible for a film to be bad if it has Julianne Moore or Cate Blanchett in it.
2. Ryan Gosling and Joseph Gordon Lewitt are currently battling it out for the title of my fake future husband.
3. I don’t like documentaries.
I’ve always preferred fiction narrative…but that’s not to say this genre of film has never intrigued me. There is one documentary that I can say without a doubt is one of the most interesting pieces of film I’ve ever seen.
Grey Gardens, voted number 9# on the list of best documentaries of all time by the International Documentary Association, came about by accident. The original project was a documentary about Lee Radziwill and her sister, a lady you might know from the history books as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But as the filmmakers began working on the project they realized a much more interesting film lay in the lives of Jackie’s aunt and first cousin, “Little” and “Big” Edith Beale.
The Beale’s enjoyed an extremely priviledged and lavish early life; part of the Bouvier family, Big Edie grew up as part of the American elite (her first home on Madison Avenue is now the Carlyle Hotel). Her daughter Little Edie grew up to be smart and beautiful; the possibilities for her future seemed endless.
And yet somehow, by the late nineteen seventies these women were living in squalor in their once majestic East Hampton estate, which they called Grey Gardens. And these are the women we see in the film. Women whose lives are long past their prime so all they can do is fight about things that don’t matter anymore. While they bicker incessantly fleas, racoons and an endless stream of cats roam around their decaying house.
You clearly see the deep love and enormously unhealthy co-dependence the women have, and when you combine that with their fascinating back story the whole documentary consistently tips back and forth from heartwarming to heartbreaking.
But you gotta give it to the Beales: no one in the history of cinema has made crazy cat ladies look more fabulous. Seeing them wear homemade turbans, fur coats and swimsuits with pumps while sipping on wine from Dixie cups and eating ice cream, in a twisted way you wish you too could be a crazy lady living by the sea. But then when the camera pans over to the mouldy walls and racoon gnawing garbage you quickly realize how silly a thought that was.
In 2009 HBO made a mini-series about the making of the documentary and it starred Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. These are two fine actresses who have each won me over during the years in various roles, but even as lovely as they are, they never capture that same wild energy that the real Beales have.
So I guess that’s why I could never REALLY trash the documentary genre: no matter how glossy a miniseriesHBO can put together is, it can just never quite compare to the real thing.