The Magic of Nostalgia and Longing in ‘Grey Gardens’ (1975)

At the very beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, I found myself seeking out cinema which made me feel comfortable within the isolation I had been forced into. The days spent inside bled into weeks which then became months, all as every day began to feel the same as the last. As I, like everyone else, started to forge my own sense of normal, I revisited the Maysles brothers 1976 documentary Grey Gardens. The documentary focuses on two eccentric recluses, drop outs of socialite society ‘Little’ and ‘Big’ Edie. The mother and daughter team seemingly have little, if anything, to do with the outside world, preferring instead to sit inside and recount days gone by, all the while yelling over each other and eating copious amounts of ice cream. As the Maysles lens captured the faded glamour, the raccoons and Little Edie’s fabulous outfits, I found myself becoming ever more entranced by the sad lives of the two women, and the way that their isolation and longing is portrayed. 

In terms of narrative, the documentary is relatively simple. The Beales are simply framed going about their everyday lives, as they cook food on a small hob on their bedsides, argue with each other and feed the many cats that they share their home with. In a particularly charming moment, Little Edie reads a horoscope book using a magnifying glass to enlarge the words. Big Edie is a former cabaret singer, while Little Edie once had dreams of becoming a dancer and getting married. They are, retrospectively, aunt and first cousin to Jackie Kennedy, but their lives could not be more separate. Instead, the two Beales have become more and more codependent during their steady decline into hoarding and squalor. This is lovingly captured by the Maysles, who occasionally are featured off camera asking questions or reflected in a mirror holding up their equipment, whilst the Beales reminisce over their life gone by. 

The space that the Beales occupy is almost like a haunted house, except instead of ghosts they fill the place with memories of their former life. Once a grand home, the now dilapidated mansion is a vortex of nostalgia, covered with both fleas and memories which the Beales dwell in and upon. The remnants of their life before the hoarding found it’s grip is evident in the way that the house is decorated. A painted portrait of Big Edie sits on the floor of a bedroom, one which depicts a much younger woman in fine clothing, a painting most likely done during the time she was married. Presumably, the painting would have once hung on a wall in a far better kept version of Grey Gardens, but instead it sits in a corner of a room as though it is a piece of rubbish. Later in the film, a cat defecates behind the painting. There are other objects dotted around that allude to a longing for a life before, including the records that Big Edie made during her time as a singer, which she plays for the Maysels on her record player towards the start of the documentary. Sitting in her bed, which is strewn with objects, she sings along to the tune in a wavering vibrato to an unappreciative Little Edie. Though we cannot know for certain, it is likely this is a common occurrence in the women’s lives. By removing themselves from upper class society, be it through choice, circumstance or a mixture of both, yet still trying to cling on to a part of their past, the women have become almost like ghosts themselves. They haunt Grey Gardens, drifting from room to room wrapped up and absorbed by one another, themselves haunted by visions of their glory days.

One particularly heartbreaking scene occurs when Little Edie throws a birthday dinner for her mother. The dinner takes place in the Beales kitchen, the guests are two people who are about the closest thing to friends the women have. Little Edie plays hostess, dancing around the guests by putting newspaper on the filthy chairs to make them more hygienic to sit on, fetching wine and ginger ale for them to drink out of paper cups, bringing in a tray of sandwiches that no one really seems to want to eat. From behind the camera, one of the filmmakers remarks that Big Edie is dressed up as though she is going for a night at the opera, having put on her best garments for the occasion – even if that occasion happens to be sitting in her mostly bare dining room and eating sandwiches made of Wonderbread. Though the two women seem to do nothing but argue, and though Little Edie talks constantly of wanting to leave Grey Gardens, the co-dependent nature of their relationship is exemplified in this sequence. They are outsiders, but they are outsiders who have each other, forming their own two person community which is mostly focused upon the needs of Big Edie. Perhaps, once upon a time, Little Edie was a hostess to, or at least attended, much grander dinner parties, and perhaps she could have been doing just that, but we will never know. Little Edie mentions that it is “very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” which is exactly part of what the Beales, like so many people outside of Grey Gardens, are struggling with. No longer part of high society and with no way of returning to it, they in many ways long for their dinner parties and cabaret career as much as they seem to be repulsed by the notion. Through the exploration of this theme, Grey Gardens captures a nostalgic magic rarely seen in any form of character study. 

If you haven’t yet seen Grey Gardens, there is a possibility you’re familiar with Little Edie Beale due to drag queen Jinx Monsoon’s portrayal of her in season five episode five of the popular reality TV show RuPauls Drag Race. Despite Grey Gardens not being overtly queer, or even camp in the tradtional sense, the film has a large LGBTQ+ following. Since the release of the film, Little Edie has become a cult fashion icon (most of her outfits throughout the film consist of headscarves accompanied by an assortment of fabrics draped over her body). As a member of the LGBTQ+ following of the film, it is easy to see why Grey Gardens is heralded as an iconic piece of queer cinema. The Beales are outsiders, shunned by society and living in their own version of class. To a prying or judgemental eye, the documentary may become exploitative, as a viewer could easily make fun of the Beales and the life that they live, or the strange speech and mannerisms of Little Edie. Yet I do not believe that was the intention of the Maysles. Thematically, Grey Gardens is far more complex than just a character study of two eccentrics, it transcends any Louis Theroux style mockery of it’s complex subjects, and is able to peel away the desire many audiences have to simply ‘people watch’ in order to reveal a tender portrayal of two women who wanted (and, in all likelihood, could have been) so much more than they ended up. In many ways, the inclusion of Grey Gardens in a reality TV show like RuPauls Drag Race is a little ironic, even if the TV show is LGBTQ+, because Grey Gardens is so far removed from the judgemental character analysis reality TV show contestants face. Little and Big Edie are both every bit as endearing as they are eccentric, and one leaves a viewing of Grey Gardens feeling the same notions of profound longing and sadness that the Beales had throughout their later life. It is as if we too have walked around the property, having just glimpsed a small window into the lives of the extraordinary women who occupied it. 

Grey Gardens is magical because it doesn’t seek to create a story out of it’s subjects. It could so easily pit Little and Big Edie against each other, could be filled with awkward interviews trying to pry into the lives of the subjects, but the Maysles brothers instead simply document. In as neutral of a way possible, the Beales eccentric, isolated, lifestyle is revelled in at full force. As Little Edie announces “I only care about three things: the catholic church, swimming and dancing, and I had to give them up,” she sums up the essence of the documentary. The film transcends a simple study of character, filling the screen with images of nostalgia, co-dependence and sadness, as the Beales reminisce over a life that once was while surrounded by decay. It is both Maysles love letter to eccentricity and isolation, as well as a portrait of two women who cannot bear to be with or without one another. Grey Gardens remains an enteral cinematic time machine, capturing not only the Beales in all their faded glory but a longing for a past that never really was that can take us all over if we are left alone for too long. 

Header image courtesy of Amazon