We’re rounding out January with a classic that we have both officially watched now. No more looking away uncomfortably at parties when someone asks if we’ve seen this week’s pick–not for these bloggers. And btw, if you’re not attending the kind of party where Grey Gardens comes up in conversation…you are probably leading a quite interesting and fulfilling life.
The classic documentary about the aunt and cousin of Jackie O who lived together in a decaying old house features much bickering, singing, flag waving, eating corn, and so many cats.
The Uncondensed Version:
Big Edie and Little Edie live together in an old mansion that has fallen into disrepair since their days of being wealthy, high society types ended. The two women eventually cleaned up the house with the help of Little Edie’s cousin Jackie O, but still seem to be constantly on the verge of eviction.
It’s really difficult to gather an accurate picture of what happened in the past because of the constant bickering and one-upmanship of the two women, but it’s easy to sympathize with them. Both seem to believe the lifestyle they assumed would be theirs forever is still relevant and sustainable.
Big Edie achieved some success as a singer in her prime along with her accompanist Gould. Little Edie herself was a talented dancer…so there are A LOT of song and dance routines in this, some more cringey than others. Their sudden financial decline was a result of Little Edie’s father, Phelan, leaving the family and getting what she calls a fake Mexican divorce(???). Her point being that the Edies, as Catholics, do not acknowledge the divorce, but rather consider it a separation.
It’s really never clear to me what (if any) support Phelan provided to his family after leaving (very little, it would appear), and where Little Edie’s brothers are in all of this. She mentions 2 brothers, but they never seem to visit or even attend Big Edie’s birthday party. God fucking dammit, men. Do better.
Little Edie reveals she always wanted to marry and had many proposals from well-to-do gentlemen back in her day, which were all sabotaged by her mother. Likewise, as she was about to get her big break in NYC when she had to return home to care for her mother. It’s believable, but it also begs the question of the role of fear and comfort in Little Edie’s life. She seems just as reluctant to leave the house as her mother and gets downright paranoid about someone secretly coming in to the house and moving her books. Though she talks constantly about returning to NYC and never looking back, she hasn’t done so in the decades she’s lived with her mother in Grey Gardens. Besides which, she seems unable and possibly unwilling to support herself, claiming she wants to be free and supported.
This mother-daughter relationship is extremely complicated, as Little Edie has cared for her mother for years but also blames her mother because she feels she has missed out on the opportunity to really live and enjoy life. Big Edie oscillates between insisting she had men to take care of her and admitting she didn’t want Little Edie to leave her alone.
Little Edie is a self-described staunch character—and it becomes clear her mother matches this description too. The two women appear to engage in a battle of wills daily, but make amends just as often.
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
I’m not sure that’s a fair rating, but there’s something deeply unsettling here that is difficult to shake. The documentary itself is fascinating to watch, but I found myself alternating between the type of fascination from listening to someone tell a really great story and the type you experience when you’re watching a train wreck.
There are many shots of the raccoons and cats that inhabit the house, and of the house itself. It’s beautiful but covered in ivy and has gigantic holes and visible structural problems, which seems to be a metaphor for the Edies and their mental/emotional state. Both are very sharp but live in a world they’ve created entirely separate from reality, willfully blind to how dire their situation is in many ways.
In a scene that captures this tension perfectly, Little Edie remarks that one of their many cats is going to the bathroom behind a beautifully painted portrait of a young Big Edie. Instead of becoming upset, Big Edie remarks she’s glad someone is doing something they want to do. It’s a moment full of humor, tenderness, heartbreak, and disgust all at once, and the very essence of this film—simultaneously in horror and admiration of these staunch characters.