(1975) dir. Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Muffie Meyer
viewed: 11/21/06 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
This is one of those cult films that I had heard about for years, but had never seen. I had come close to renting it several times, but when I saw that it was playing at the Castro, the time seemed right to finally see it. Strangely, they did not project a film version but apparantly some video version. And oddly, though I almost always think that seeing a film in the theater is preferable to seeing it on televsion, this case might actually go against that. The crowd was a mixture of first timers and huge fans who laughed riotously at several points, obscurring the dialogue on the already hard to hear soundtrack. It also tended to further the sense of exploitation of the Beales, with some moments that are more tragic than comic getting a heavy explosion of hilarity from the crowd. It detracted from the experience rather than enhanced it.
The film is pretty amazing, really. The story of Edith ‘Big Edie’ Bouvier Beale and Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale is really fascinating, their early years as beautiful blueblood socialites through to their later life in their decayed mansion of Grey Gardens on Long Island, surrounded by garbage, fleas, cats, and racoons. Their circumstance and their beings are deeply merged. But they are fascinating lunatics, very intelligent, deluded, and bizarre. It’s not hard to see how they became such cult icons. It’s hard to imagine anything more unique.
The film has often been criticized as an exploitation of the women, and I think that is often a criticism of documentaries whose subject matters bare all for the camera while the filmmakers simply “record”. I would say that there is a great beauty and humanity to the women, both of them, even though ‘Little’ Edie is certainly a little further “out there” mentally. They are fully rounded, telling their life stories, playing to the camera, and becoming what ultimately ends up as significantly notable beings.
As for the exploitation, I would say that the musical adaptation of the film, which I guess has recently appeared on Broadway and the narrative film that is said to be in production with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore…well, that is much much much more distrurbing.