Antenna Documentary Film Festival Review: Grey Gardens (USA, 1975)


When all you’ve known is wealth and privilege, it’s a long fall from the top of the social ladder. But some do fall, and that’s exactly what happened to Jackie O’s aunt and cousin, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie). The demise of two eccentric yet ultimately enigmatic women are told in the cult documentary film classic, Grey Gardens. 

It seems even back in 1975, when brothers Albert and David Maysles made the film; audiences had a fascination with the rich and famous. In the case of Grey Gardens, the “rich” part came in the form of Mother and Daughter team, Edie and Little Edie living in a dilapidated old mansion in The Hamptons (the playground for the rich and famous on the East Coast of the USA), while the “famous” part was their family link to Jackie O.

This film is much more than just the Beale’s fall from the upper echelons of society. What we encounter are two women who are desperately trying to hold onto the pretence of being wealthy, when they were in actual fact living in squalor, eating ice scream and living with 8 cats (sorry to the cat lovers out there, but come on). They were so poor they couldn’t afford electricity, and essentially lived in one room of the house.

How they got that way though, isn’t really explored in the documentary (an intense Google research session will fill in all the gaps, but do that after you watch the film otherwise you’ll miss the point), but it’s evident that the reason Edie and her daughter Little Edie refuse to leave Grey Gardens is because they are co-dependent on each other. This unhealthy relationship is the overarching theme of the documentary, and one that haunts the viewer long after the closing credits.

At the end of the day, Edie and Little Edie are very charismatic. They still speak with an upper class New York City accent, straight out of the Madison Avenue lifestyle they used to have before they moved to The Hamptons. Both women were beautiful, with Edie once being a singer and Little Edie wanting to be a dancer. The Little Edie we meet in this film is even a little flirty. They speak to each other sometimes jokingly, like many mothers and daughters do, but other times there’s lingering resentment coming from Little Edie, and it’s heartbreaking to see. Little Edie, in fact, lives a life unfulfilled – the final scene sees her dancing alone, dressed in a beautiful slinky black dress. So iconic is this scene that it was replicated in a film based on this documentary, starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange.

This documentary reminds you that reality TV, for all its voyeuristic appeal, can never match a properly made documentary. Both mother and daughter are aware of the cameras and openly acknowledge the filmmakers’ presence (“But the movie, the movie!”), whereas in the reality TV they pretend they’re not playing up to the camera.

The other reason Grey Gardens works so well is because of the mysterious mansion itself. It’s almost as if the house is the third character in the documentary, one that imprisons the women with its façade of grandeur, much like the women themselves.

While they are both long gone now, Grey Gardens will forever live on as a beautiful character study of two women who, due to their inability to face the reality of their lives, had to endure their own prison and live like recluses in a lonely old mansion.


Grey Gardens is showing this Saturday (October 18th) as part of the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Sydney.


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