Sundry Shades of Grey
Titled from the twenty-eight-room derelict that discomfited East Hampton McMansion neighbors, Grey Gardens has been decried as heartless, exploitative, tabloid, “offensive,” “voyeuristic in the extreme.” Now labor-intensive manually restored from 16mm negative by the Criterion Collection and the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the 1976 cult favorite also defiantly finished “ninth greatest documentary” ever in a Sight & Sound poll. Albert (camera) and David Maysles’ ninety-four minutes shares directorial credit with their three editors and/or co-producers and is miles less exploitative, manipulative or voyeuristic than many a mainstream movie which plays coy while leering at box-office-bait sex, violence, aberration and exhibitionism.
Growing from twice-widowed Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onasis’ thrice-divorced little sister Caroline Lee Bouvier Radziwill’s invitation to document her own silver-spoon youth, the brothers’ Direct Cinema/cinéma vérité classic replaced that original project, depending on source either by their own decision or because the upset uncooperative ex-Princess canceled the deal. Research had brought them into contact with the sisters’ year-shy-of-octogenarian paternal aunt Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter, cousin Edith “Little Edie” Beale.
The Maysles’ habitual insistence on immersion in but not intrusion into the lives of their Americana subjects permits them to appear in some few frames -- as often reflected in mirrors as not -- be addressed by the two women, and have their own voices mumble indistinct words. There are a few outsiders as well, in two weird birthday party guests, a Newtown grocery deliveryman, a gardener, and young hard-to-figure handyman-painter and mooch Jerry.
But the show belongs to the ladies not in the least shy about exhibiting much wrinkled and surplus flesh or embarrassed on airing dirty laundry and psyches. They kvetch to the camera, about each other and what each has sacrificed for the other -- sexual maybe romantic love, marriage, social life, a singing or dancing career. Frequently speaking both at once, each over the other, they nevertheless ooze maternal and filial affection, much like a forever-married couple or distaff Oscar and Felix.
Sotto voce in ostentatious stage whisper, the daughter talks of the theater career and long-gone suitors given up more than two decades before to move back from the big city and its bright lights and opportunities to care, she avers, for Mother. In too-tight skimpy outfits and always in headscarves -- a comparison to Big Edie’s enviable white hair -- she is wistful but not resentful or overwhelmed by regrets.
Descending the stairs with difficulty and so usually lying in bed, Big Edie is more sharply witty, about past and present, a contrast sharpened by black-and-white stills of the two in finery and at high society functions. Now they live surrounded by dozens of pampered cats, but Mother is dry enough to remark on a particular black one that uses her long-ago society portrait as a “bathroom” screen. But despite raccoons fed in the attic by Little Edie, the ubiquitous lounging cats, broken screening in doors, laths showing through here and there and wildly overgrown grounds, the mansion does not strike one as smelly or sordid Miss Havisham rundown enough for the town Board of Health to have threatened going into action. Though only once does even the business part of a broom appear for a few seconds, inside walls we see are brightly painted, glass windows intact, and the kitchen clean.
Old-money outcasts, or dropouts by lifestyle choice, the Beale ladies are not condescended to, smirked at or exhibited. They are allowed to be unabashedly themselves, an admirable twosome who took the frosty road less traveled referred to by Little Edie and who would later come to be celebrated in Vogue features, a Rufus Wainwright song, Tony-winning Broadway musical, cable TV movie, and a second documentary assembled from outtakes.
(Released by Janus and rated "PG" by MPAA.)