An 80-year-old woman lives with her 58-year-old daughter in a few filthy rooms of a rotting 28-room mansion. They share it with a lot of mangy cats, raccoons and possums in the attic (which they feed), and, no doubt, rats and mice scrabbling in the walls. Both are named Edith Beale, Big Edie and Little Edie. Little Edie has been here for 20 years, but will be leaving soon (she tells us many, many times). So what the hell is this? The Misses Havisham, Jr. and Sr.? Some godforsaken backwater of the Yoknapatawpha River in Mississippi? Norma Desmond and Blanche DuBois living under assumed names?
No, it’s The Hamptons, Long Island, and the women’s middle name is Bouvier. They are Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin, and not long ago the county almost threw them out for health and safety violations until Jackie swept in and swept up and presumably gave them a good Bouvier talking-to. This gives the movie a special edge, I suppose. How did these children of fame and privilege get into such straits?
Basically, by being crazy as bedbugs (which I suspect flourish in Grey Gardens). Oh, not awful crazy, not insane; you can talk to them, they are quite rational most of the time, they aren’t scary in any way. But crazy is as crazy does. One look at their house and you know. And they seem happy enough, so who cares, as long as they don’t breed cholera and dysentery in the place?
But there’s a fine line between cinéma vérité and voyeurism … actually, maybe it’s not so fine, maybe it’s not a line at all. This is okay, most of the time, but this whole film made me queasy. It’s like studying an ingrown toenail, or staring at a homeless man muttering to himself while sitting in his own filth. Never mind that the women invited the Maysles brothers in to make this movie. I felt like I was invading their privacy. I felt like they were too far gone, too infatuated with their endless repetitions of the same stories and arguments that had occupied them for 20 years to give informed consent.
Plus, in 30 minutes I knew all I wanted to know about them. Little Edie has a voice like a velvet chain saw, and her self-revelations and high-jinx grew tiresome very fast. I don’t mind looking at the ruins of a building, but contemplating the ruins of lives is a bit too much for my stomach, at least in this case.