Movie Review By Andrea Chase
"Grey Gardens," first released in 1976, is a fascinating character study for many reasons, not the least of which is that it proves F. Scott Fitzgerald's adage that the rich are different from you and me. How else to explain the reaction of the ladies of the documentary Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith, Jr. to their downwardly mobile economic shift? Once coddled by servants and trained in the fine art of doing nothing, poverty's reality is politely ignored. The clipped, o so posh accents remain as the ladies of the piece, observe as best they can the social niceties in the midst of squalor and denial.
Their claim to fame is their relationship to the most famous Bouvier of them all, Jacqueline, who went on to marry John Kennedy and then Aristotle Onassis. Her aunt and cousin, though, went on to lose their wealth, it's never explained how, and to gradually turn their once regal summer retreat, "Grey Gardens" into a fortress of fleas, filth, and garbage. Racoons live in the attic, unnumbered cats roam the house and the grounds, as the Edies confine themselves to one bedroom equipped with hotplate, refrigerator, and a stunning portrait of the elder Edie as a young matron.
Big Edie and Little Edie, as they're called, ramble through much of their days, sporting odd fashions created from whatever's handy and reminiscing about the disasters that have befallen them. These seem to center around the long dead and even longer estranged Mr. Beale, husband and father respectively. When not reliving injustices, real and imagined, inflicted years ago, they dream of what the future will bring them. It is remarkable watching them bicker, snarl, and snipe directly at the camera, attempting to draw the hapless cameraman into the quarrels. Most remarkable of all is the transcendent way in which these entirely unhappy people live in the past and the future but never for an instant in the present. It's enough to turn the audience Zen Buddhist in one fell swoop.
The Maysle Brothers, Albert and David, film with a gritty hand-held style. They use tight close-ups of their subjects and long uninterrupted takes to home in on what makes these women tick. In the process, they become a welcome new audience to the decades long arguments and conversations that these two have been keeping alive. Fascinating, grotesque and patently theater of the absurd, "Grey Gardens" is a human comedy of tragic proportions.
© 1998 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 7/21/98
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