It was reported in the press that Jackie Onassis' aunt and cousin had had their mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, named Grey Gardens, declared a health hazard due to the poor state of repair the building was in, with holes in the walls and wild animals running free in between its walls. Documentary makers the Maysles Brothers decided to make a film of them after being diverted from one on the women's relatives, and two years after the mansion had been supposedly declared fit to live in once more, they began filming. This is the result.
This was also proof of the voyeuristic nature of documentary, particularly the fly-on-the-wall style shown here, as pretty much everyone who wanted to see the film was attracted by the stories of the crazy behaviour the two subjects were rumoured to have gotten up to throughout its running time. And in that respect, it did not disappoint, with the elderly mother, Edith, and middle-aged daughter, Edie, seen living in squalor, surrounded by cats, and talking incessantly, to the Maysles brothers but mostly to each other in an antagonistic fashion, as if vying for attention under the lens.
There is not a storyline here exactly, as most of what happens is in the background to how they ended up in this predicament. After listening to old records (some made by Edith) they spend the rest of the film trying to sing in an earsplitting manner that will test most reasonable patience. This is interspersed with reminiscences over old photographs (we can see how far they have fallen from these), listening to a weird preacher on the radio who they rhapsodise over, and lamenting their lot in life, all under the unblinking eye of the Maysles' camera. Edie also feeds the raccoons in the attic and dances for the camera. A lot, it's something she feels she is particularly skilled at, although you may disagree.
The impression you get is that each night the Maysles would go home rubbing their hands together gleefully in anticipation of whatever freakshow the next day would bring (however, they actually stayed in touch with Edie after the film was completed). Oddly, while Jackie Onassis is the only reason anyone heard of them in the first place, she barely gets a mention. We hear about various long-forgotten society types who Edie recalls with wistful longing, the males seeming to have spent most of their time proposing to her although she is still single and patently bitter that she has had to stay with her mother all these years instead of branching out in her own right.
Yet there's a real feeling that these two could not live without each other, as much because they have become so eccentric - or plain mad - that nobody else would be willing to take care of them at the time this was filmed, and Edith seems to have ensured that her daughter will be at her side forever more. With plenty of people living their lives on camcorder these days, there are probably a few more of these documentaries waiting to be made, but the fans of the originals in Grey Gardens treat the ladies as if they were on a par with faded, past their prime movie stars reduced to slumming it in third rate features. Nevertherless, most likely you'll just feel ill after watching this as it appears to confirm everything you ever feared about encroaching old age and the degrading effects it can have on your faculties and your immediate environment. As it is, for all the cult affection it engendered, it is more depressing than amusing.
American documentary maker, usually in collaboration with his brother Albert. Salesman was their first real cult film, followed by the notorious concert movie Gimme Shelter and the voyeuristic Grey Gardens.
Albert Maysles (1933 - )
American documentary maker, usually in collaboration with his brother David. Salesman was their first real cult film, followed by the notorious concert movie Gimme Shelter and the voyeuristic Grey Gardens. After David's death, Albert continued to work in the format.