Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 1976
Directed by
David Maysles | Albert Maysles | Ellen Hovde | Muffe Meyer | Susan Froemke
94 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Grey Gardens

A lot of people swear by this documentary although I am not sure why.  It is a portrait of a couple of, shall we say “eccentric”, women, an 82-year-old mother and her 56-year-old daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale and Edie Beale, who once belonged to the cream of America’s upper class society (Edith was aunt to Jackie Kennedy) but for reasons unexplained have broken all ties with their former lives and are living in squalid conditions in the remains of their large, crumbling family home in the Hamptons surrounded by cats and nesting raccoons.

Yes, one appreciates the stark contrast between the lives of the women now, and in their glory days, happier times which we see largely through old photographs and portraits, but the Maysles’ steadfastly observational approach not only leaves that contrast unexplored but one can’t help but feel that there is a certain exploitation of the women's lot, Edie in particular.

This feeling is evident in the opening sequence in which Edie explains to the camera the thinking behind her idiosyncratic attire. There is a sense here that she is, if not a mad, then a very sad and lonely, woman who really does not deserve to be turned into a performing animal for the Maysles’ camera. This is so even though Edie clearly loves the opportunity to perform for an audience, as does her mother who even in her largely bed-ridden decrepitude is able to hold a tune. In this respect the Maysles’ are quite literally documenting what is in fact a lived performance as the two women act out their fantasies of faded gentility. It is this aspect I assume which earns the film its generally high critical rating although whether this in itself is enough is questionable. 

For the bulk of the film the two women are together, either in the bedroom they share and largely live in, or on the verandah taking in the sun. Either way, they spend the bulk of their time in squabbling banter, with Big Edie constantly pointing out Little Edie’s failings and tossing off the occasional sarcastic bon mot. Why the latter puts up with this, indeed makes looking after her largely bed-ridden mother her life’s vocation is never addressed, the Maysles apparently happy to let her run through her extensive wardrobe of once fashionable threads invariably accompanied by a tight-fitting colour-coordinated headscarf and demonstrate her dancing in one-piece bathing costumes, relics of her younger, slimmer years.

For the ghoulishly-inclined this may well satisfy but some exploration of the women beyond the parameters of their claustrophobically co-dependent relationship would have made this a much more interesting film.

FYI: The film was turned into a 2009 TV movie with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.




Want something different?

random vintage best worst