Monday, January 7, 2008

Staunch Characters

A while ago, I ran across a little blurb in Vanity Fair Magazine about Grey Gardens, the 1975 cult documentary by Albert and David Maysles. Immediately intrigued, I began searching for information about the film and its fascinating subjects, Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale. That's Bouvier as in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. As in serious East Coast money, with a whole lot of craziness thrown in to keep things interesting. Rich girls looking for love, that sort of thing. Oh, and lots of cats.

Big and Little Edie were the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy, and they caught media attention a few years before the documentary was made when their ramshackle East Hampton mansion, Grey Gardens, was condemned by the health department. Jackie Kennedy helped finance its cleanup, and things got off the ground from there, with the Beales finally assuming cult status, especially among the gay community. Then, in 2006, Albert Maysles released The Beales of Grey Gardens as a follow-up piece dedicated to his brother, David, and the Beale women, now all deceased.

I finally found both films over the holidays and watched them this weekend, and I have to say I am still thoroughly captivated. Grey Gardens is a classic documentary that follows the daily lives of this eccentric mother and daughter team. It captures Little Edie in all of her crazy charm, from the "revolutionary costumes" she makes up to the frenetic songs and dances she performs. In the midst of this is the family matriarch, Big Edie, who endlessly annoys her daughter and runs what's left of the household, all the while rarely leaving her bed. The first film is extremely heartbreaking, as you realize the depth of the Beales' mental illnesses and the fact that Little Edie returned home years before, not to care for her mother as she repeatedly claims, but for her mother to care for her. Yet their life behind the overgrown trees and bushes is filled with poetry, music, and happy reminiscences of days gone by. It's as if the Beales, once so constrained by upper-class society, finally said, "Too hell with it!" and decided to live as they wanted.

The companion piece, The Beales of Grey Gardens, is the more colorful of the two films, and features lots of interaction between the filmmakers and their subjects. Little Edie flirts with both Maysles brothers, constantly pretending to choose between them, and explains that she never married because she could not find a Libra husband to suit her desires. Her musings about war and the Republican party are especially timely now, and it's easy to see how different the lives of both women could have been, had they been born in a later era. At one point within the film, Little Edie remarks that she didn't want some actress to portray her in a movie, so the documentary was the best way to showcase her life. And, of course, in her crazy, sweater-wrapped kind of way, she's absolutely right.

Interestingly, a movie about the Beales is now in the works, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. And Chanel pays homage to Little Edie in its fall/winter line, complete with head coverings, scarves, and broaches. "It's terrific!"