Sunday, May 3, 2015

Grey Gardens


David (left) and Albert Maysles on the set of Grey Gardens, 1976


GREY GARDENS                A                   
USA  (94 mi)  1976  d: Albert and David Maysles    co-directors:  Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer

I'm sure you've been asked this many times, but what do you say of critics who dismiss Grey Gardens as an exploitation of the two women?

I feel very strongly about that sort of thing. They're way off course and the irony of it is that they make these claims to protect these two women from the camera...(laughing)--these two women don't need any protection. The underlying notion in claiming exploitation is that they're just crazy. So it's all in attempting to defend these women from exploitation that they're really undermining the beliefs that viewers have that these are really healthy people. When we finished the film, we showed it to a group of some 500 psychotherapists and even they didn't quite get it. They went off into all this hocus pocus language of their profession. I see it as an act of great courage for the two ladies to open their doors in such a way that we had total access to them. People who claim exploitation say: "Only crazy people do that sort of thing." But we gave honor to their openness.

The peculiar thing--but not so peculiar when you understand it fully--is that my understanding of their whole psychology is that they couldn't quite take the life of American aristocracy and the Bouviers. The only way they could fully be themselves was to seclude themselves--to sing and dance and to fashion their clothes. All of these creative efforts they could do and do fully and love each other. So along come these two guys with a camera who offer them a chance to come out into society--it was the greatest boon for them. They could still be themselves and gain access to the whole world. They didn't have the kinds of ill health that characterized the population around them. Instead, they had each other. So in a way, they're models of a good relationship.

─Interview with Albert and David Maysles on Grey Gardens from indieWIRE, April 23, 2009, Interview: Albert and Philip Maysles on Grey Gardens, the ...

I went to two cocktail parties [in East Hampton] to stop the gossip about my being a recluse.  Most of them looked at me like I was from Mars.  I shouldn’t have gone; I don’t drink.  If you don’t do what everybody else does out there, if you don’t go to the Maidstone Club or join the Garden Club, you’re written off as crazy. 
─Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale

As much as The Great Gatsby, Tennessee Williams’ or Truman Capote’s stark depictions of the tattered remnants of Southern Gothic aristocracy, GREY GARDENS veers behind the scenes of American wealth and power and reveals an untold story, the skeletons in the closet of one of the great American families, that suggests, at least according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, that rich people really are different, perhaps because of an innate self-preservating ability to delude themselves, continuing to see themselves as the center of the universe even as all evidence suggests otherwise.  While Tennessee Williams created Blanche Dubois, a fictional character forever haunted by her past, which is an utter fantasy, always embellished to make her look good, and Truman Capote created aging aristocrats living in decaying Southern gothic plantations filled with the lost memories of their lives, the Maysles brothers have the Beales, where much of the notoriety of the film comes from the Beales’ relationship to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, as Jackie was Edith Wing Bouvier Beale’s niece and her daughter’s (known as “Little Edie”) cousin.  Edith (born in 1895) was an American socialite that lived through the Roaring Twenties as a young debutant, pursuing an amateur singing career until abandoned by her husband at age 35.  By then a mother of two sons and her daughter Edie, Edith’s settlement included Grey Gardens, a 28-room mansion in one of the most affluent communities in America overlooking the beach in East Hampton, New York.  Edie was 14 when her parents separated and worked as a fashion model in her youth, living independently in New York from ages 30 to 35 as she attempted to pursue a dancing career, but returned in 1952 to live with her aging mother in Grey Gardens for the next 37 years.  Originally commissioned by Lee Radziwell, Jackie Onassis’ sister, to film a “family album” that would involve meeting and shooting various friends and relatives, the Maysles instead discovered unwanted family castoffs, a reclusive mother and daughter tucked away in a dilapidated, flea-ridden mansion on East Hampton, as if stuck in a time warp where the past and the present continuously merge, living with raccoons in the attic and dozens of cats roaming freely around the premises.  Eccentric and reclusive, it was in the 1960’s, following the death of their longtime handyman Eugene Jiskevich, allegedly Little Edie’s suitor, who came one night and stayed for ten years, that they lost much of their personal wealth and their descent into their current decrepit state began, where they began living among piles of undiscarded garbage.  By 1971, they were cited for numerous safety and sanitation violations that were brought to the public’s attention, where they were introduced to the Maysles brothers only after Jackie Onassis removed several thousand pounds of garbage, saving Grey Gardens from government seizure.  Spending six weeks with the Beales in the fall of 1973, the Maysles brothers used portable 16mm hand cameras to follow them around the house as they go about their day-to-day routines, often interjecting themselves into the dialogue and/or the picture, as it’s clear both women have a uniquely comfortable relationship with the camera, where there is a sense of mutual trust and affection that comes through every frame.

Listed as #9 from the BFI Sight and Sound, September 2014 poll of greatest documentaries of all time, Critics' 50 Greatest Documentaries of All Time - BFI, GREY GARDENS is one of the first documentaries to venture into the private space of a household, previously seen as off limits, ironically paralleling a similar public invitation by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy leading a televised guided tour of the White House A TOUR OF THE WHITE HOUSE WITH MRS. JOHN F. KENNEDY ...  YouTube (10:12), which aired on CBS to enormous TV ratings on February 14, 1962.  The contrast between the two households couldn’t be more pronounced, with Little Edie acting as the Grey Gardens tour guide, where the Beales have lived for several decades in near-poverty, their lives descending into a state of squalor, but rather than see themselves as victims, the Beales actually cozy up to the camera, grateful to have an audience, like Gloria Swanson preparing for her close-up.  Even if there was no camera, these women are true originals, seeing themselves as budding artists and entertainers, willing to make any sacrifice for their singing and dancing careers, waiting to be appreciated by someone who would listen to them.  Using the cinéma vérité style of Gimme Shelter (1970), this is one of the first documentaries to add elements of a fictional style of melodrama, where certainly part of the film’s appeal are the enormous personalities on display, where the Beales argue, dress up, sing, dance, complain about the life that got away and how much they sacrificed for each other, while constantly reminiscing about their earlier experiences in New York’s social elite, memories that seem to provide a grounding relevance to their lives.  One of the best lines of the film comes from Little Edie, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, do you know what I mean?”  Like ghosts swirling around the cobwebs of her mind, Edie’s life is filled with regret and missed opportunities, as well as complicated and frustrating relationships with men, who, like Blanche DuBois, she continues to rely upon, from her absent father, a piano-playing accompanist stepfather, to the handyman that wanted to marry her, but her mother refused and sent him away, thinking he wasn’t “good” enough for her.  While it’s hard to know whether it actually happened that way, it’s clear she is still haunted by the memory.  When a new teenage handyman named Jerry appears, his presence triggers all the regrets and past failures, where he seems to personify all the men that have wronged Edie, where she even calls him “Marble Faun,” a 19th century Nathaniel Hawthorne novel inspired by a naked Greek marble statue, the Faun of Praxiteles, or the Resting Satyr, that she claims he resembles.  While Jerry remains anonymous throughout, never even acknowledging the camera, Edie remains fascinated by the idea that he would want to have sex with her, “But he’s not gonna get it, I can tell you that right now,” where she’s unable to distinguish this guy (who revealed in interviews afterwards that he’s gay) from all the other men in her life, as they are all somehow merged into one.  The film is a love letter to people stuck in time, where these women are still living in the 1930’s, an era where they were first learning to speak their minds and express themselves, but also develop the social values where women were taught that marriage was the ultimate dream, to be living and supported by an appreciative man.  No one ever prepared women for the man that died or got away, where you’re left on your own. 

The film came under critical attack at the time of its release with claims of exploitation, calling it a cruel and cringeworthy depiction of women who clearly have mental health problems, with one critic calling them a “circus sideshow,” where one might grow concerned that the two women are being laughed at and reduced to spectacle, certainly thoughts that cross one’s mind while watching the film, but what’s also clear is the transparency, the lack of self-consciousness that is present throughout, along with the non-judgmental quality of the film itself, where the Beales are perfectly aware of their oddness and social peculiarities and are not hiding anything.  The same questions are asked in Jonathan Caouette’s portrayal of his mother in Tarnation (2003), someone who had undergone extensive electric shock treatments, where some viewers felt uncomfortable that he was demeaning or ridiculing her, while others felt she was lovingly portrayed “as she is.”  When watching Little Edie’s performances where she choreographs various dance numbers throughout the house, literally putting on a production number for the camera, obviously enjoying herself, creating a camp atmosphere that’s dizzyingly bewildering in the bizarre outfits and sheer amateurishness of the dance moves, yet it generates jealousy from Big Edith, who is constantly competing with her own daughter for camera time and special attention.  In one scene Edie retreats to the attic, where she’s often seen leaving a box of dry cat food and a loaf of white bread for the everpresent raccoons, yet here she voices her concerns that someone has been stealing things and removing them from the mansion, a troubling revelation that one senses may be delusional.  The Maysles themselves rejected the idea that Edie was a schizophrenic, claiming she is “eccentric, non-conformist, but definitely not schizophrenic.”  It’s significant to recall that only two years earlier the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders, ratified by the American Psychological Association two years later in the same year the film was released, where the film extends the boundaries of what is commonly perceived as normal or crazy.  The women have clearly rejected the suffocating societal restrictions of their aristocratic upbringing, perhaps involuntarily removing themselves from that world, choosing instead a purposeful non-conformity, where Edith, who is virtually bed-ridden throughout, spends much of her time in various states of undress.  Not to be outdone, Little Edie is never seen without a turban, choosing daring ensembles ranging from a bathing suit with fishnet stockings and white high heels to wearing towels, curtains and tablecloths, a neverending one-woman fashion show, always seen wearing a signature heirloom brooch.  “My costumes? That’s a protest against having worked as a model for the Establishment, believe it or not.  A lot of models feel that way.  Sometimes their lives are protests against having worked as models.  Besides, I didn’t have time taking care of mother to get out and buy any clothes.  So I used what was left of mine and mother’s in the attic.”  Despite their disagreements and personal spats that seem to erupt out of nowhere, it’s their buoyant optimism and sense of self-assurance that defines who they are, two distinct personalities who are both very comfortable in their own skin.  Big Edith lived alone for 30 years, proud of her independence, and while Little Edie thinks she moved in to take care of her invalid mother, it’s just as likely the reverse is true.  Looking back on her life, Big Edith recalls, “I was a very happy woman all my life.  I had an extremely successful marriage…I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.”  While they’ve chosen a less traditional path, emblematic of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation that Little Edie misquotes, this may as well define the essence of their outsiderist spirit.      

This is a highly complex and frequently ambiguous story, told in a fragmented structure that prevents the audience from getting a clear view of either woman, mostly revealed in passing conversations, where the shared overriding desire seems to have been to remove themselves from the harshness of reality, where they have literally created for themselves their own Glass Menagerie protected from the outside world.  The nature of the women’s lives was frequently repetitive, even obsessive, where one day was very much like the next, so in editing the material, which amounted to 70 hours of film (with two of the editors given co-directing credits), scenes could be fluidly interchanged, where there is a looseness with time, which appears to be constantly shifting even in their own minds.  Edie’s primary defense against her mother’s overcontrolling behavior revolves around performance, where every day she eagerly greets the cameras with the announcement of her “costume for the day,” concerned about her looks, her hair, her weight, her figure, all discussed openly with her mother, where as long as she continually talks about herself her mother can’t get a word in edgewise.  As if lobbying for the costume design credit for the film, she then reminds the filmmakers “I have to make these things up.”  In the editing rooms of Gimme Shelter, the Maysles relentlessly pit Mick Jagger’s manufactured stage version of himself against his real self, both hugely at odds with one another.  With Little Edie Beale, her everyday life represents a healthy amount of self-expression, often seen mugging for the cameras, but this natural inclination is part of her persona as a would-be performer, where she constantly reminds us about having abandoned her dance career in Manhattan to care for her mother, assuring us she’d be much happier living in any New York rathole, “even on 10th Avenue.”  What’s intriguing about this thought that reoccurs throughout the film, like a regular theme, is that this traumatic event happened twenty-three years earlier, yet it’s still as fresh in her mind as if it happened yesterday.  Twice she choreographs a march to the Virginia Military Institute’s fight song, The VMI Spirit - YouTube (1:38), while on another occasion she describes her outfit as a “staunch woman dressed for battle” while also discussing a family run-in where she felt they were trying to take advantage of her.  “The relatives didn’t know they were dealing with a staunch character (who won’t) weaken no matter what.”  Clearly, when playing a role, particularly when dressed accordingly, Little Edie feels happiest and most liberated.  Big Edith constantly undermines her daughter’s artistic inclinations throughout, resorting to her own professional singing career where she boasts about her classical training and actual stage experience, viewing herself as the consummate professional while belittling Edie’s mocking performances.  While they continually resort to psychological warfare, they are both connected by their marginalized position in their family as well as the community, both feeling a mutual disdain for the upper crest society that ostracized them and drove them away.  Having few options left, they circled the wagons at Grey Gardens, becoming united in their final stand against the world.  Perhaps their most tranquil shared moments together involve food, mostly taking place while sitting atop Big Edith’s bed, which becomes the default room of the household, seen spreading liver pâté on crackers out of tin cans or using plastic forks to eat ice-cream directly out of quart containers.  Despite its strangeness, their rendition of the family mealtime is the closest they come to normalcy, even when seen sharing food and space with cats roaming around the premises.  Spending close to $50,000 on film and equipment, offering an advance of $5000 dollars each for both of the Beales, also 20% of future profits (which amounted to a big fat zero, though it didn’t stop Little Edie from scouring Variety each week to check on the anticipated profits), the filmmakers practically lived at the mansion during the shooting where the bugs were so prevalent they were forced to wear flea collars around their ankles.  A musical version opened on Broadway in November 2006 called Grey Gardens: The Musical!, having a successful run through July 2007, winning three Tony Awards, including best performances by a leading actress (Christine Ebersole) and featured actress (Mary Louise Wilson), while also winning best costume design.  HBO released a film version in 2009 starring Jessica Lange (who won an Emmy for best actress) and Drew Barrymore, winning six of the seventeen nominated Emmy Awards.  Big Edith died in 1977 from complications of a fall, while less than a year later Little Edie had an unsuccessful debut as a Manhattan cabaret singer at the now defunct Reno Sweeney’s where she perfomed songs, danced, told stories and even took questions from the audience before selling Grey Gardens in 1979 and living a relatively secluded life in Bal Harbour, Florida where she died in 2002 at age 84, discovered in her apartment an estimated five days after succumbing from an apparent heart attack.    

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