It might be cliche to say that you don’t watch Grey Gardens, you experience it, but I’m going to roll with that description because the documentary is ripe with visceral intimacy — evoking the same feeling of sickness that accompanies laughter in the presence of something unsettling. Edith and Edith Beale are aunt and cousin to Jackie (Kennedy) O., and their stark, remote, mansion in the Hamptons is littered with vestiges of a squandered aristocracy.
To say their home is in disrepair would not adequately communicate the grotesque conditions of the property. A squad of not-quite-feral skinny cats share inlets and outlets in the roof with plump raccoons. Newspapers are used to protect anyone who wants to sit down from the cat excrement and vomit spackling every surface. A large, fine, portrait of the elder Beale leans against a wall in her bedroom, harkening to a time of distant opulence. When Edie Sr. notices one of the cats peeing behind the painting she comments on the scene with only resigned resolve and not the abject horror one might expect.
Therein lies what separates Grey Gardens from the slob hoarder porn trend TLC has managed to wring dry — the fascination with the Beales derives not from their ramshackled surroundings, but from their imperviousness to their conditions and the contrast between who the Beales are, who they were, and what they envision themselves to be.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you probably know I could teach a master’s class about how Arrested Development is the greatest television show of all time, bar none, dramas included. For the uninitiated, I’ll summarize the premise of the show by saying it is the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and one son, who had no choice but to keep them all together. From young Edie’s perspective, that description might be an appropriate summation of her life as well. While the Beales’s past lives are most often alluded to in vague competing narratives from mother and daughter, young Edie purports that she returned home from New York City to care for her aging mother after her father left Edie Sr. for another woman.
In reality, Edie Jr.’s origin story aligns more closely to Baby Buster Bluth than his older brother. Buster and Edie Jr. are parallel portraits of two people who cling to their cloying mothers, experience crippling infantile anxieties indicative of a life lived under the shelter of privilege, followed by the harsh shock and loneliness of having that gilded reality stripped away. (The wonderful documentary Queen of Versailles is another contemporary retelling of the same story: a wealthy family copes with the loss of riches that shaped their identity, and the terror that hovers on the periphery of that experience.)
Young Edie claims she was never afraid in the city, but that the country with its deep dark forest terrifies her. She eyes the two men whom she interacts with regularly, the gardener Brooks and the handyman Jerry, with contemptuous suspicion, and when she finds an unexpected book out of place it launches a barrage of paranoid fantasies about how it landed there. We’re never told why outright, and there are hints of a trauma that occurred in the city, but Edie Jr.’s hair has stopped growing, and she is always seen sporting her signature, makeshift, head coverings.
Yet, in spite of all the loss and grim reality of their perpetually downwardly mobile lives, the Beales sing and dance and bicker and eat ice cream in bed. They don’t seem unhappy. Their ability to fiddle while Rome burns is endearing and fascinating. At times while I watched them I flashed back to my own years sharing a roof with my mom, and I found their antics relatable, almost comforting. At other times I felt guilty - like I was participating in a middle school gang of bystanders while a cunning bully pretends to be nice to the free spirited outsider kid for our amusement.
There is a voyeuristic quality to all documentaries that is inherent to the medium, but the expanse between the Beales’s perception of themselves and their image in the eyes of the viewer sometimes seeps into a feeling closer to predatory surveillance. The smart decision by directors Albert and David Maysles to not edit their presence out of every scene counters some of the undertones of exploitation. The Beales clearly trust the documentarians, and welcome them into their lives with a flourish. They perform for the camera, little Edie calls her outfits costumes, and they speak to the Maysles as allies who may beincapable of restoring them to their past grandeur, but at a minimum provide new faces willing to listen to old stories.
Mastering the balance between showmanship and exposure encapsulates the brilliance of Grey Gardens, because like it or not, we are all the Beales. We are all influenced by a prehistory we could never control. We are also looking to define ourselves within the framework of an evolving world that is foreign to the predecessors who sowed the seeds of our ideologies. We are all striving to present ourselves as one thing (hello, Instagram), and in doing so revealing the insecurities we hoped to camouflage. We all crave protection and independence, but find it difficult for those states of being to coalesce, as the Beales articulated in an exchange near the beginning of the film:
EDIE SR.: Why do you want to get out ? Another place’d be much worse.
EDIE JR.: ’Cause I don’t like it.
EDIE SR.: Any place will be much worse. Any place on earth.
EDIE JR.: Yeah, but I like freedom.
EDIE SR.: Well, you can’t get it, darling. You’re being supported. You can’t get any freedom when you’re being supported.
EDIE JR.: Yeah; but — You can’t ?
EDIE SR.: No; you can’t. You have to toe the mark.
EDIE JR.: I think you’re not free when you’re not being supported — — It’s awful both ways.