Grey Gardens (1976)

Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC

USA 1976. Directors: Albert and David Maysles

There are two questions that plague every psychiatrist: What is normal, anyway? And was F. Scott Fitzgerald correct—are the rich really different from you and me?

All right, perhaps the latter issue is more of a personal than professional interest, but the documentary Grey Gardens provides a wonderful impetus to reflect on each of these profound questions.

Released in 1976 and filmed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, Grey Gardens depicts the very circumscribed lives of Edith Wing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (familiarly known as ‘Little Edie’ or ‘Edie’).

Much of the notoriety of the film stems from the Beales’ relationship to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Jackie Onassis was Edith’s niece and Edie’s cousin.

By way of brief background, Edith (born in 1895) was an American socialite who pursued an amateur singing career in her younger years. Abandoned by her husband at age 35 and by then a mother of two sons and her daughter Edie, Edith’s settlement included Grey Gardens, a 28-room mansion in affluent East Hampton, New York, a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean. Edie was 14 when her parent’s marriage collapsed. A fashion model in her youth, she lived independently in New York from ages 30 to 35 as she attempted to pursue a dancing career. She then returned in 1952 to live with her mother in Grey Gardens for the next 37 years.

It was in the 1960s, following the death of their handyman and a significant home burglary that the remarkable social drift downwards began.

Sustained by only a small monthly stipend and the intermittent sale of jewelry, by 1971 the mansion had reached a decrepit state and was overrun with cats, raccoons and garbage. Cited for numerous safety and sanitation violations that came to national attention via the press, it was Jackie Onassis’s intervention (and the removal of a thousand pounds of garbage) that saved Grey Gardens from government seizure. However it’s clear an insidious attrition was only temporarily halted.

The genesis of the film occurred when Lee Radziwell, Jacqueline Onassis’s sister, commissioned the Maysles (of Gimme Shelter fame) to film a ‘family album’; a project that involved meeting various relatives and friends.

Although that film never went beyond confiscated stills, the Maysles became aware of the skeletons in the closet—the eccentric and reclusive Beales.

About a year later in 1974 and apparently because the Beales had enjoyed the previous, albeit limited, filming experience with the Maysles, the two brothers were invited back.

Using portable hand cameras, they spent six weeks at Grey Gardens following the Beales as they went about their day-to-day routines, most often conducted within a single room anchored by Edith’s less than regal-like presence on a filthy bed.

What emerges on film is a bittersweet and highly intimate portrayal.

Most often the viewer simply witnesses mother and daughter reminiscing, bickering, expressing regrets as well as pronouncements on life. There is a bizarre birthday scene with a small number of relatives and brief interactions with Jerry, a young handyman.

There are even more interactions with cats, fleas and raccoons—including Edie feeding the latter Wonder Bread through a large hole in a decaying attic wall. Garbage and clutter is everywhere.

Both Edith and Edie also perform for the camera. Edith, virtually bedridden throughout the entire film, sings while a frenetic Edie dances, marches and plays tour guide while participating in a never-ending one woman fashion show. One moment she is dressed in an upside down skirt, the next swathed in lace curtains, and always with an ever present turban.

Technically, Grey Gardens helped expedite the proliferation of cinéma-vérité or direct cinema—a ‘naturalistic’ and presumed-to-be objective film-making without voice-overs, explanatory titles or a narrative structure. The Maysles believed that as documentary filmmakers you were not there to direct or control but to observe and discover.

From a psychiatric (and ethical) perspective, the principal controversy surrounding Grey Gardens is whether it should be viewed as explorative or exploitative.

The latter consideration is even more contentious if one considers either Edith or Edie, or both, as psychiatrically ill. Under these circumstances, are Edith and Edie simply akin to Hyler et al.’s ‘zoo specimens'(1)—a significant and unfortunate stereotype of how those with mental illness are frequently depicted in films (think Woody Allen in Zelig)?

With this issue in mind, there’s no question that family pathology is present—what unmistakably dominates Grey Gardens is a dysfunctional mother/daughter co-dependent relationship. Less certain is whether a discrete psychiatric illness in mother and/or daughter could be accounting for their eccentric lifestyles and social isolation.

For example, there is no evidence for a dementia or depressive illness and no reference to the anxiety that might be associated with agoraphobia.

Similarly, although it’s been written that The New York Times refused to print Edie’s rebuttal to a scathing review of Grey Gardens because she was “schizophrenic”, one would be hard-pressed to find phenomenology in the film to definitively support this diagnosis. Granted, Edie’s odd beliefs, behaviour and appearance are suggestive of schizotypal personality traits. Ultimately, however, the etiology behind Grey Gardens very strange state of affairs remains a mystery.

Although the term freak show has been suggested by some reviewers, it is a gentle and affectionate portrait that emerges, not a condescending or voyeuristic depiction.

It seems clear that the Beales have both comfortably and willingly enjoyed the opportunity to be filmed and to intimately share their lives, an impression confirmed in interviews after the film was released.

Grey Gardens has now reached cult status and generated its own mini-industry that now goes far beyond the initial inspiration of Edie’s standing as an offbeat fashion trendsetter.

A second documentary The Beales of Grey Gardens has now been assembled by Albert Maysles (David Maysles died in 1987). Released in 2006 and gleaned from unused scenes taken during the original shoot more than 30 years ago, it has a similar look and feel to the original documentary.

There’s more. You can now purchase memoirs and scrapbooks compiled by the Beales’ relatives as well as posters and audio interviews. Remarkably, there is also now Grey Gardens: The Musical! Following an off-Broadway production, a musical version of Grey Gardens opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in November 2006 and had a successful run until July 2007, winning three Tony Awards, including best performances by a leading actress and featured actress. The musical’ original cast album has now been released and nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. And are you surprised? A feature film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore is now in production.

As for Edith Beale and her daughter Edie? Edith died in 1977 from complications stemming from a fall. Less than a year later, Edie had a very brief and unsuccessful stint as a cabaret performer in a Manhattan night spot. In 1979, she sold Grey Gardens and subsequently lived a relatively isolated life, primarily in Florida. In 2002, at age 84 she was discovered deceased in her apartment, an estimated five days after dying from an apparent heart attack.

Hopefully, the legacy of Grey Gardens will be more than the derivative commodities it spawned. The distinct personalities and lifestyles of Edith and Edie stand as a testament to purposeful non-conformity, a welcome challenge to society’ restrictive behavioural norms.

And as for the two questions posed at the beginning of this review? Well, I’ no further ahead on my definition of normalcy—which perhaps is a good thing. But I do have a strong sense that those born rich are indeed very different from us regular folks, regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

1. Hyler S.E., Gabbard G.O. and Schneider I. Homicidal Maniacs and Narcissistic Parasites: Stigmatization of Mentally Ill Persons in the Movies. Hosp Community Psychiatry 42:1044-1048, 1991.