Saturday, February 24, 2007

Grey Gardens: A Cautionary Tale

Can it get any better than Edie Beale, the former junior miss of the decaying family manor, "Grey Gardens" in the Hamptons? I don't think so. When I first saw the documentary "Grey Gardens" a few years ago much of it was lost on me or maybe I wasn't in the mood. Sure, it was wacky and I can guarantee would have been a blast to see with some gay friends back in the day of Boston area film fests, but thanks to the DVD one can now see it at home. Perhaps that effect is lost on the average viewer but see it with some friends, in this case some close girlfriends of mine, and the perceptions change.

What becomes clearer on repeat viewings is the glimmer of profound awakening that Little Edie can have in the apparent mess and madness. She is 56 when the Mayles brothers come to their home in the mid 1970s to film their documentary (originally they were planning to do a film on the childnood of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill but the Beales, Big and Little Edie--aunt and cousin respectively--proved far more interesting). A once stunning beauty, she has become weathered and somehow off, particularly in the oddly stylish outfits she puts together for herself. [No fashion victim, Little Edie would seem to transcend couture with her sweaters tied over her head and assemblage of old cocktail dresses, coats and once stylish clothing.]

When we meet her she has been living back at Grey Gardens with her mother for over 20 years and her reasons for returning are never made clear: did she have a breakdown? Did her mother? Was it for financial reasons? The film, in its non-contrived approach at filming the Beales as they are, does not fill in any blanks so there are more questions unanswered. There is a constant undercurrent of dysfunction and the push and pull of a mother-daughter relationship that never quite matured. Big Edie won't shut up or let her daughter speak: she both talks and sings over her. No wonder Little Edie seems a bit nuts. Who wouldn't be? [And any mother of a daughter--or daughter of a mother--might recognize how easily this kind of delicate and complex relationship could teeter into a strained dance of ego and madness.]

Meanwhile, racoons have infested their home, in part by their feeding them in the attic, cats rule the house, and Big Edie holds court in a small back bedroom filled with cats, trash, clutter and a sterno heater. Groceries are delivered and it is difficult to know what food is for the animals and what is for the women. Big Edie's debutante portrait in oil, propped against her bedroom wall, provides a handy hiding place for a cat to do his business. When Little Edie goes to her own bedroom or out on the porch, her mother can't stand that she might be saying something on her own or without her. Edie's own voice emerges when she leaves the house and dances on the porch or sunbathes--otherwise, her mother won't let her talk.

Perhaps the saddest part of the film is the mother and daughter's codependency with each other and their past. Early in the film, Little Edie says: "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It's awfully difficult." Their house, aptly named 'Grey Gardens', has deteriorated into a kind of gothic allegory from the mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne. They cling to the memories of former glories and "Mr. Beale", Little Edie's father who apparently left her mother when she took to singing in nightclubs. The black and white photos of the two women in their prime and amidst the trappings of a wealthy society from the earlier part of the century say it all: we were once beautiful and privileged and sane. Even though the house seems to have been cleared of most furnishings, the Beales don't seem to see or care about the dust and squalor still around them. Their dysfunction seems oddly functional in their own universe but compare it to the one beyond their overgrown hedges and wild landscape--a seeming barrier against the world--and insanity and sorrow creep in. [A birthday party for Big Edie also reveals this paradox.]

It isn't hard to root for Little Edie (you know it will soon be curtains for her mother and that all hope has passed for her recovery) or hoping she would be somehow rescued from her mother, her house, and her apparent fate. The film, ironically, provided her shot at glory and escape until she died in her mid-80s a few years ago at her Florida apartment. When she swims in the nearby ocean you sense it is her only opportunity for freedom. With the regular breaking into old songs that Big and Little Edie do--including Little Edie's playing some of her mother's old recordings--it is easy to see why "Grey Gardens" became a natural choice for a Broadway musical.

In my own battle with an old family house full of the stuff of generations (that in many ways has become a burden to us), past memories and associations, and lots of clutter from myself and the many "ghosts" who still dwell here (and an office desk piled high to the rafters), I especially like this quip: "I'm extremely organized. I know exactly where to look for this stuff. I've got it under control right here, but I can't find it. Get it?" To anyone who is inately cluttered or bogged by anything, this will make perfect sense.