Yes, I agree, it’s a fascinating story … but that fascinating? Consider: There was the original 1975 documentary by the Maysles Brothers. In 2001 Rufus Wainwright wrote a song entitled “Grey Gardens.” Then in 2006 there was an award-winning musical … which still boggles my mind; it has to be the unlikeliest subject for a musical since Sweeney Todd. In 2007 there was “A Few Small Repairs,” a play based on the Beale girls. In 2008 there was another play, “Little Edie and the Marble Faun.” And now this. I submit, dear reader, that this is overkill. How many times does this story need to be told?
(Before I carp some more, let me agree with most of the critics that this is a very good production. The juxtaposition of the mansion and the Beales as they existed in 1936 with the appalling ruin of both the residence and the residents is shocking. Drew Barrymore does her best work here, and as for Jessica Lange, it’s Emmy time, baby. Hard to believe that we got our first look at her in King Kong’s fist!)
But back to the story itself, and the ladies at the center of it. I’m assuming you know the story of how this mother and daughter (both named Edith Bouvier Beale: Big Edie and Little Edie), relatives of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, degenerated over almost 40 year from rich society dames living the sweet life in the Hamptons to housebound, impoverished, loony cat ladies squatting in the ruins of their mansion. They were first exposed to the world when the sheer stink of the place drew enough complaints from the neighbors that the health department stepped in. The smell of the festering urine and feces must have been staggering. National headlines drew Jackie into the picture, and she saved the house itself by cleaning up enough of the squalor and removing enough of the feral cats (and raccoons!) to make the place marginally habitable. Then the Maysles arrived and spent a lot of time with them, making their movie. (And talk about hazardous work! I’d have preferred to make a movie about deadly snakes. Part of dressing for work was wrapping flea collars around their ankles. The place was jumping with them.) There is some controversy about this. The Maysles had the permission of mother and daughter to film anything and everything—given eagerly; Little Edie thought this was her last chance to be a dancing and singing star—but were they too crazy to give informed consent? Obviously they were nuts, but were they exploited? I guess everyone will have his or her own opinion on that. Neither seemed unhappy with the final product, though again, did they realize how horrified the audiences were? How squirmingly honest they had been, baring their tight little squabbles? Did they care? In this film, Little Edie is happy to appear at the premiere, where she is applauded. Later, she is shown doing a nightclub act in a trendy New York place. She’s happy. The audience is shown to be appreciative … but we know what was really going on there. She was the freak of the week for the snarkily sophisticated, Andy Warhol crowd. Like Tiny Tim. Remember him? The difference was, Tiny Tim was actually quite a talented guy. Edie was awful. But hey! She was happy. Maybe she knows people are laughing at her, maybe she doesn’t. Isn’t her happiness the part that really counts?
Now to the point that really bugs me. I guess I understand why this story has been told so many times. It’s become iconic enough to be mentioned on television shows as varied as “The Gilmore Girls,” “The L Word,” “Will and Grace,” and, no kidding, “Rugrats.” Mention Grey Gardens and everyone knows you’re talking about loony recluses living in catshit up to their knees, and/or people with failed dreams. But there’s a million examples of both of these things. People don’t want to hear those stories. What gives this story its seemingly never-ending legs is, of course, that they were once rich, society ladies, and they were Kennedys! Or part of the extended, and so often pathological, Kennedy clan. And frankly, the Kennedy clan bores the shit out of me. I’d be happy if I never heard another word about them. I know I’m destined to unhappiness. But I do think that, at least, we could put these pathetic ladies back into their coffins and let them rest. Please? Can this movie be the last word on the subject?