Originally Reviewed – 2/5/2010
Few documentaries polarize people as much as Grey Gardens…it’s either a fascinating look into co-dependency and delusion or it’s the shameful exploitation of crazy people. If you don’t know the back story, the film centers around the real life interactions of Big and Little Edith Bouvier Beale, the aunt and cousin respectively of Jackie O, who as we all know was the wife of JFK. After Big Edith’s husband leaves and her sons leave one by one, Big Edith does eveything in her power to keep Little Edith in the house and under her wing. Since the East Hampton estate is now vacant except for the pair and the two have lived a life of leaisure (neither of them have even seen a mop, much less used one), the house quickly fails into decay and infestation. Finally, after threat of eviction from the town, Jackie O steps in an fixes up the house to the best of her ability.
The documentary begins two years after the attempted eviction with both Little and Big Edith still living under the same roof. The documentary itself is as bare bones as it gets with directors Albert and David Maysles (famous for the Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter), basically setting up the camera and filming two crazy people interact in a dilapidated house. For the patient viewer, however, you get an in depth look at people living with mental illness and get a strong appreciation for a loving relationship between two very sick people. Remember, this was made way before the mentally ill became an A&E sideshow with shows like Intervention and Obsessed, so this was groundbreaking stuff in 1975.
The film isn’t perfect however. The directors make very little attempt to tell the back story, hence my long winded first paragraph. and the film’s impact is hampered by that. If you know nothing of these two people before seeing the film, all you get is a series of home movies involving an overbearing mother and her doting daughter.
That being said, my recommendation for those unfamiliar with the back story would be to see the recently released HBO film of the same name before seeing the original. The HBO movie, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, tells the story leading up to the original and you get a much better sense of how the family actually got this point. Be forewarned that the HBO film also recreates scenes of the original with Barrymore and Lange playing Big and Little Edith (very well, I might add), so there are spoliers.
All in all, it’s a fascinating film about love in the most unhealthy of relationships and is worth seeing for anyone who’s a fan of documentary style film.
Score – 90%