Return to 'Grey Gardens': Why It's Still One of the Best Documentaries Ever


Forty years have passed since filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles took their cameras into Grey Gardens. The faded East Hampton estate was the home of Edith Bouvier Beale (a.k.a. “Big Edie”) and her grown daughter Edith (a.k.a. “Little Edie”), where they lived as virtual recluses.

It wasn’t always that way. Decades before, the family and the house were at the epicenter of upper-crust society, particularly after the elder Edith’s niece (and Little Edie’s first cousin), Jacqueline Bouvier, married dashing Congressman John F. Kennedy. An aspiring actress, Edith seemed destined for great things as well, but rather than pursue a grand life, she wound up returning to Grey Gardens. The Maysles entered the scene after the media caught wind of the increasingly decrepit state of the house, not to mention the strained relationship between mother and daughter. Rather than kick them off the front porch, Big Edie and Little Edie invited them in and allowed them to film their lives.

The resulting film, simply titled Grey Gardens, became a cult sensation upon its release in 1976, and has spawned, among other things, a Broadway musical, an HBO TV movie, and fashion spreads in such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar. A remastered version of the film opens for a run at New York’s Film Forum today, courtesy of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. (It will have additional playdates on the art house circuit over the next few months.) The film’s theatrical re-release arrives on the same day that Albert Maysles passed away at age 88, which lends additional poignancy to its longevity. (David died in 1987.) In this conversation, Yahoo Movies writers Ethan Alter and Gwynne Watkins discuss the enduring legacy and many unsolved mysteries of the influential documentary. 

Ethan Alter: Watching Grey Gardens again for the first time in a long time, I felt like I had stumbled upon the long-lost pilot to one of the most influential (and awful) reality shows of all time: Hoarders. Obviously, the Maysles had very different motivations. The A&E TV series always carried whiff of exploitation, whereas Grey Gardens is a much kinder, if nonetheless unflinchingly honest, portrait. Still, both the film and the series have the same fascination with watching individuals who have constructed their own brand of order out of what looks — to us, anyway — like chaos. Who hasn’t wanted to unleash their inner slob without giving a fig what the rest of the world thinks? If the Hoarders producers weren’t in part influenced by Grey Gardens, I’ll eat my shoes…or at least, leave them strewn on the living room floor.

Hoarders isn’t the only reality show that came to mind while re-watching Grey Gardens. I was also reminded of pretty much every home improvement show that airs on HGTV. Choose your poison — House Hunters, Fixer Upper, Rehab Addict — they’re all predicated on the satisfaction of taking something decrepit and transforming it into a million dollar listing. I love the fact that mother and daughter are perfectly content with their — to borrow a Hedwig-ism— exquisite corpse of a home. Heck, Edith actually invites critters in, spreading out cat chow in the attic for any stray feline (or raccoon).

Here’s another thought: Is it crazy to think of the Bouvier Beales as the ‘70s version of the Kardashians? They’re not into the same faux-glamour that Kris, Kim and the rest of that clan practices, but they are similar in the idea that they were a fame-adjacent family who became semi-legitimate celebrities after inviting cameras into their homes. Since the Maysles brothers are working in the cinéma vérité school of documentary filmmaking, they’d never blatantly stage scenes in the same way the Kardashian producers do. But they are inviting audiences to peer behind the curtain of a certain social and economic class, and maybe experience a slight satisfaction at seeing that these “stars” are just like — and, in some ways, worse off than — the rest of us.

So what do you think, Gwynne? Am I onto something in believing that Grey Gardens is the Urtext for almost every contemporary reality show around?

Gwynne Watkins: Shame on you, Ethan, for daring to compare the Edies to the Kardashians! And now that you’ve done that, I can admit that I totally jotted down the “K” word while I was re-watching it. There’s certainly something to be said for Grey Gardens being the great-grandmother of modern reality television. A good reality show (and I believe there is such a thing) lets the audience feel like voyeurs in someone’s private world, while at the same time reassuring us that the people onscreen are entertainers. Without the first element, a show feels artificial; without the second, it feels exploitive. And I’m not sure that balance has ever been achieved as perfectly as it is in Grey Gardens. Grey Gardens doesn’t feel like a place we should be allowed to see. And it’s not just because it’s a decrepit hoarders’ paradise. It’s also a deeply private place. At times, it seems like every knickknack and photograph is a piece of Little Edie’s inner life, put on display for our benefit.


But just when we’re tempted to avert our eyes, Little Edie reminds us how desperately she wants us to be there. A recluse since her mid-30s, Little Edie (who was 54 years old during filming) once had ambitions to be an actress or dancer. After five years of trying to make it in New York City however, she came home take care of her mother and never left. Under the gaze of the Maysles’ camera, Little Edie finally gets her chance to be a star. She refers to her outfits, bizarrely constructed but undeniably flattering, as “costumes.” She improvises dance numbers — most memorably, a patriotic marching song with an American flag — and executes them with childlike relish. Little Edie may not be able to leave Grey Gardens, but thanks to the documentary, she accomplishes the thing that most thrills and terrifies her: being seen.

Watch a scene from ‘Grey Gardens’

Speaking of being seen, Albert and David Maysles’ presence is one thing that struck me more about Grey Gardens this time around. The filmmakers make a concerted effort to let their subjects speak for themselves, and for the most part, the filmmakers are silent observers, like the cats that lurk in the corners of the house. But the brothers do appear onscreen late in the film, during a particularly cutting argument between Little Edie and Big Edie. Turning the camera away as if to give the Beales privacy, they instead film their own reflections in the bedroom mirror. Of course, we also see a portrait from Big Edie’s youth in that mirror, because the past is everywhere in Grey Gardens, all the time. But it’s interesting to me that the Maysles brothers chose to edit that scene into the film. Maybe it represents their growing presence in the Beales’ lives? There’s a moment when Little Edie tells her mother,  “All I needed was this man David! I wish I had David and Al with me before this.” One gets the sense that the Maysles brothers’ constant documentation is changing the power dynamic between Little and Big Edie, though not enough for any major upheaval.

And I guess that’s one thing that’s striking about Grey Gardens, from a contemporary perspective: not many changes do occur. There’s no big narrative arc or third-act rug-pull. Time itself seems to slip away during the film, much as it has for the Edies. I remember when I watched the film with my husband, he was exhausted with tedium by the end; he wanted something to happen. So Ethan, what do you think of the storytelling in Grey Gardens?  Is there more plot here than I’m giving the filmmakers credit for? Or is that languorous pace part of what makes the movie effective?

Ethan: Maysles’ studied, languid pace does feel a little tedious at times, so I get where your husband is coming from. In fact, I fully own up to glancing at the runtime on more than one occasion, and I’m an avid doc fan who loves immersing himself in one of Frederick Wiseman’s multi-hour portraits. (Wiseman’s absorbing, butt-numbing 180-minute epic National Gallery was one of my favorite films last year.)

A modern-day version of Grey Gardens would probably look a lot more like one of Andrew Jarecki’s character studies along the lines of Capturing the Friedmans, where the movie would jump around in time, playing up the “tragedy” of Edith’s supposed downfall. And while I think that approach would have its own distinct pleasures, I respect and admire the humanism on display in the Maysles’ film. That’s part of their brand of documentary cinema in general whether it’s the door-to-door hawkers in Salesman or the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter.

And even if the style and storytelling in Grey Gardens is relatively straightforward, the Maysles’ do make some interesting formal choices throughout. For me, the standout sequence in the film is where Big Edie and her daughter flip through their old photo albums, their memories accompanying each image in voiceover. Again, a contemporary documentary would likely try to find actual archival footage or, at least, period-appropriate B-roll to accompany that scene, believing that the audience couldn’t bear to stare at photos for 10 minutes. But I love the way that scene runs on — the photos come alive as mother and daughter talk about each one. It’s a reminder of the power of oral storytelling in a medium that’s primarily thought of only in visual terms.

Watch the trailer for Grey Gardens:

Not to dive back into the reality show well again, but I very much agree with your point that a great reality show allows you to play voyeur into a person’s world. And part of that experience is meeting their freaky friends and hangers-on. Which is why the figure that perhaps fascinated me the most in Grey Gardens this time around is Jerry Torre a.k.a. the Marble Faun. A curly-haired teenager who drops by Grey Gardens on a regular basis ostensibly to keep up the grounds — but really to hang with Edith — Jerry is an oh-so-‘70s riddle wrapped in an enigma. Big Edie suggests that her daughter likes his company because she imagines him to be the kind of suitor who used to drop by the house in Edith’s glory days. To me though, their relationship seems more rooted in friendship: They’re two outcasts who happen to find each other. Today, they’d make plans to cosplay at Comic-Con together. Another reason Jerry is fascinating is that he’s the one member of this trio that’s still alive; after Grey Gardens, he pursued an appropriately checkered career that included a stint as a cabaret performer, an employee of Saudi Arabia’s royal family and a New York City taxi driver. According to his website, he’s currently working as a sculptor at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan. Whaddya say? Can we commission him to make a sculpture for Yahoo Movies HQ (a marble fawn, naturally) in exchange for some great behind-the-scenes stories?

Gwynne: I love that Jerry’s website is, and I love that he sells autographed prints of this photo. Appropriate for all gift-giving occasions! Jerry seems like the character who best represents the audience: He just hangs around the house, eating Big Edie’s corn and enthusiastically absorbing the weirdness. He’s a bit of a blank slate, but that doesn’t stop the Beales from projecting all kinds of things onto him. There’s a scene in which Big Edie appears to be flirting with Jerry and tells him he looks like her mother. (That’s a whole lot to unpack, right there.) And Little Edie is even worse: She’s alternately convinced that Jerry is stealing from her, that he’s trying to get her into bed, or that he’s trying to move in and replace her in Big Edie’s affections. At one point, Jerry brings the ladies a washing machine salvaged from another house, and Little Edie is furious. “I gotta get outta here! I’m not going to spend the rest of my life washing clothes,” she fumes. Jerry may be the most benign of intruders, but the Beales’ world is only big enough for two. 

Even more intriguing than Jerry, perhaps, are the ghosts of Grey Gardens: The people we never see, whose names bob up in the endless circular conversation about the Beales’ former lives. One is Tom Logan, a handyman who was involved with Big Edie and took up residence at Grey Gardens for ten years, much to Little Edie’s dismay. Another is Gould, Big Edie’s accompanist from her younger days as a singer. “He was brilliant, and he played the piano magnificently and composed exquisite music and dedicated about 80 songs to me,” she boasts. And then there are Little Edie’s suitors (a long list of men from famous families, all of whom she says her mother scared away) and her distant, difficult father. Each of these men offers a tiny window into the Beales’  long-gone past. I don’t know about you, Ethan, but as I watch Grey Gardens, I’m constantly scouring for clues about how this happened. What was the turning point for the Beales?

Watch a scene:

My favorite line from the movie comes from that photo album scene you mentioned, and sounds like something right out of Lewis Carroll. “See how pretty Edith was when she was young? It’s perfectly foolish of her not to look that way now,” says Big Edie. That kind of magical thinking is abundant in Grey Gardens, and it contributes to the sense that the film is like a fairy tale: two princesses, abandoned in a tower, waiting for rescue. As much as the Beales seem like proto-reality stars, there’s also something mythic about them.

Ethan: Totally agree on your princess analogy, which seems even more appropriate in light of the Beales’ familial connection to John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. And even though JFK is only referenced a handful of times in the film, I do think that link is one of the key things that has continued to make Grey Gardens an object of fascination for people. Though arguably less so today, for much of the 20th century, the extended Kennedy clan was viewed as American royalty, with their various achievements and tragedies being breathlessly reported upon. And here’s a branch of that gold-plated family tree that broke and plunged to the ground.

Thankfully, the Maysles aren’t interested in making it easy for you to experience the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude. (I know you’re a fellow musical theater fan, so sing it with me now — “People taking pleasure in your pain!”) Even as the film invites you to wonder and try to reconstruct what must have happened in the past to bring mother and daughter to this point, their camera remains judgment free. The advantage of the direct cinema approach they employ is that it encourages viewers to come up with their own answers for some of the film’s lingering questions. One of the problems with the 2009 HBO movie version of Grey Gardens — good performances by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, aside — is that the filmmakers were required to distill the subjects’ lives into a dramatic arc, which meant devising more overt explanations for their decisions and behavior. The documentary is less definitive and that ambiguity allows it to live and flourish in the viewers’ minds long after the credits roll.

Gwynne: I can’t think of another documentary that has seen so many artistic re-interpretations over the years. While I didn’t watch the HBO movie, I did see the Grey Gardens musical (both on- and off-Broadway), which very successfully explored the family’s story without trying to explain away its mysteries. When I saw the off-Broadway version, the audience was packed with gay men who laughed in solidarity every time they recognized a quote from the film. Little Edie’s enduring status as a gay icon strikes me as a beautiful thing (and if you haven’t seen this clip of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Jinkx Monsoon playing her, drop everything and watch it now). Little Edie Beale is a woman who literally lost everything (including her hair, likely from malnutrition), yet refused to see herself as anything but a star. Forty years later, Little Edie is a star, Jerry the Marble Faun carves stone statues for a living, and millions of Americans compete to have their messy lives featured on reality TV. Grey Gardens allowed the Beales to live in the past, but really, it showed us the future.

Photo credit: Everett