At the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, Albert and David Maysles led a quiet revolution in documentary filmmaking. Salesman, their 1969 account of travelling Bible vendors was a brilliantly assembled portrait of blue collar America as the country's economy begin to fray. Gimme Shelter, their 1970 film about the Rolling Stones' doomed concert at Altamont, has passed into history as the moment when the hippy dream ran up against the grim reality of the underground's violent overlords, the Hell's Angels.
Grey Gardens, released in 1975, is equal to its predecessors, yet marks a subtle and not necessarily intentional shift in the Maysles approach, as the brothers themselves become players in the strange, dysfunctional, tragic-comic world of a co-dependent mother and daughter, who might have been conceived by a feverish Tennessee Williams.
Seventy-nine year old Edith Bouvier Beale and her 56-year-old daughter Little Edie live in the remaining serviceable rooms of their decrepit East Hampton mansion, most of which has now been overrun by possums, cats and raccoons. Edith is aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the assassinated president; Little Edie is Jackie's cousin. Mother and daughter have lived together in a dirty corner of their 28-room home for 25 years, during which time their relationship has taken on a perversely co-dependent, deeply eccentric aspect marked by both women's resentful conviction that the other has spoiled her life.
Surrounded by scrapbooks, photos and dusty mementos, the Bouviers' life in East Hampton is haunted by the past. Edith was a society singer before her husband left her for a younger woman. Little Edie had her time in the New York spotlight too, and was engaged to at least one millionaire. Then, depending on which side you believe, Little Edie was recalled to the family seat by her mother, who believed her daughter couldn't cope alone in the city. Or: Little Edie returned of her own volition because she believed her mother couldn't cope alone in East Hampton.
Now Little Edie is a childlike 56, and her conversation is a breathy mix of slightly surreal observations about her mother and animated non-sequitors. Waltzing through the ruined house singing her marching song, she dresses in a head scarf and a tight little skirt which she wears upside down. That way, she explains, she can whip it off if necessary and redeploy it as a cape. "When am I gonna get out of here?" wails Little Edie, who, like her mother, has barely left the grounds for years, and seems unlikely to make the break now. "I'll have to start drinking," says her Ma, bedridden but still sharp as bitter lemon. "You'll make a drunkard out of your own mother."
With two such unconventional and potentially fragile subjects, the film is open to accusations of exploitation, yet not once do the Maysles smirk at their subjects. Indeed, for flamboyant Little Edie, once so beautiful and so frustrated in her attempts to make it on the stage, the camera becomes a treasured companion, and as the film evolves the Maysles become her confidantes and private audience.
Unlike their previous films, the directors themselves are unavoidably present in Grey Gardens, and the Bouviers seem grateful for the company. "David, where have you been all my life?" sings Little Edie to the director at one point. In an addition to the Criterion Collection DVD, Edie confesses over the phone to David Maysles what's fleetingly apparent here: that for over 30 years she's been a little bit in love with him.
While Grey Gardens never laughs at the Bouviers, it does acknowledge the whiff of kitsch that hangs over the house. In 2006 the film inspired a Broadway musical. In 2007 Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange are slated to star in a filmed adaptation, but no amount of artifice can match the febrile atmosphere or the filthy living conditions which the Maysles found in 1973, or the lightness of touch they grant the Bouviers' story.
Grey Gardens is a fascinating portrait of two ailing ladies whose blood will always be blue. It's a bittersweet portrait of Little Edie, so buoyant in the face of disappointment. But most of all it's a lingering film about family ties, which for the Bouviers are as tight as a tourniquet, with all which that implies.