Every so often you turn on the television in passing and something completely stops you in your tracks. The glare captures you like a wallaby transfixed by beaming headlights on an isolated country road and there is no other option but to sit and try and make sense of what is playing out on the screen. A few years ago, whilst desperately avoiding a university assignment, I captured the final hour of a documentary on SBS. An elderly women, silvery grey locks falling from her straw sun hat, sat upright in her bed, staring directly at the camera through thick glasses. A younger woman, in a makeshift head scarf, wandered fretfully around the room, arguing with the older woman over song lyrics. Suddenly, the older woman launched into an impromptu performance of “Tea for Two”, made famous by the Broadway musical, “No, No Nanette”. They were, of course, the Beales – both Edie’s, big and little. The film was Grey Gardens.
Thrust into the spotlight again recently due to the HBO telemovie, sharing the same name and largely based on the original documentary, Grey Gardens became a cult hit soon after its release in 1975. Directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles and celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the film documents the lives of the mysterious kin of America’s favourite first lady, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Her aunt “Bid Edie” and cousin, “Little Edie” reside in the dilapidated ‘Grey Gardens’ mansion in Georgica Pond, East Hampton. Following decades of isolation, the Beale’s home descended into squalor, resulting in a series of inspections by Suffolk County Health Department – a period in 1972 referred to by Little Edie as “the raids”. Facing eviction, they appeared in a cover story for New York Magazine and eventually received funds to repair the property. The Maysles focus not on the fate of the once-grand home, but on the Beales themselves and the tense, tragic and beautiful relationship between mother and daughter. Both women immerse themselves in the past on a daily basis – dwelling on the decisions they made, missed opportunities and lost loves. The constant bickering between the two almost overwhelms the fact that they are so reliant on each other in every single facet of their lives. Whilst Big Edie has her moments (her previously mentioned performance of “Tea for Two” will haunt you for the rest of your days), it is Little Edie who emerges as the true “star” of the film. A sweater around her head and pantyhose pulled up over her shorts and a skirt “you can always pull off and use as a cape”, there is no doubt Little Edie was the Lady Gaga of New Hampshire – an eccentric and a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” in the fields of fashion and the arts. The Maysles capture Little Edie singing and dancing for the camera – still perfecting a musical routine, well into her fifties.
As a documentary, it’s influence upon popular culture is perhaps only rivalled by Michael Apted’s Up series and, like Apted, the Maysles faced their share of controversy for what some critics perceived as the exploitation of the two subjects. At the time of its release, academics argued (and continue to argue) about the mental stability of the Beales and the Maysles intentions when filming them.
In Little Edie’s case, if anything, the later years of her life saw her evolve into a figure of bravery and courage, rather than a mentally unstable “victim” of cruel documentarians. Instead of retreating after the documentary’s release, she came out, red shoes tapping, and finally performed the cabaret act that she’d carved out at all hours on the veranda of her weathered beachside home. Later, she briefly moved to Canada, in an attempt to perfect her French – fulfilling an ambition she mentions in the film. As discussed in Ghosts of Grey Gardens, an extra on the Criterion Collection DVD, Little Edie penned an impassioned defence of the film after it was savaged by a New York Times film critic Walter Goodman. Labelling them as “grotesque” with “sagging flesh”, Beale responded “My dear, it appears you don’t want to be faced with people just a certain age doing much of anything”. She continued, “I have Bouvier blood and southern blood in me and nobody is going to stop me from doing anything”. The letter wasn’t published, the armchair psychologists at the Times dismissing her as “schizophrenic”.
In response to frequent accusations of mental illness in the film, Harry Karlinsky wrote in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, “One would be hard-pressed to find phenomenology in the film to definitively support this diagnosis”. Instead of exploiting the Beales, Karlinsky argues “it is a gentle and affectionate portrait that emerges, not a condescending or voyeuristic depiction”.
Still, it brings up an important question as to what constitutes exploitation in a documentary. Even if a subject consents to appear in a film, and heck, even relishes the opportunity as Little Edie did, is it morally just when their flaws are exposed, providing entertainment for the masses?
It can be argued it’s entirely up to the individual whether they want to exploit the Beales or not. You can view Grey Gardens as a farce or a nightmarish freak show and laugh or gawk at the Edies or perhaps you can view something beyond the one-liners and garish brooches – a deeply human tale of a relationship defined in equal parts by love and loneliness. As Little Edie said, by way of infamously misquoting Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in yellow woods, and pondering one, I took the other and that made all the difference”.