I don’t like scary movies. I’m easily upset by brutal violence, can’t handle realistic gore, have nightmares at the slightest hint of supernatural activity, and didn’t even really like the scene in Borat when the antique store gets all smashed up.
I was unprepared, however, for the terrifying ride that is Grey Gardens. What could be scary about two dottering old ladies living in a dilapidated house in the Hamptons? Plenty, it turns out.
Grey Gardens, made by the Mayles brothers in 1975, follows the lives of Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In late 1971 and early 1972, the Suffolk County Health Department threatened the women with eviction for the poor condition of their house. The story was publicized in the National Enquirer and New York, which led to national interest. Onassis helped them get their house back into liveable condition and shortly after the Mayles made Grey Gardens. (For more information on the chronology and background see Wikipedia.) Here’s the original trailer for the film, with some great visuals of how beautiful both Edies were in their heyday.
In the opening scene, Little Edie explains her “costume for the day.”
Something about her tone, her strange, self-effacing awareness of her own brand of crazy, and the inanity of her speech really caught me off guard. The movie just gets stranger from here in a series of eerie vignettes. Little Edie continues her ramblings, telling the cameraman her secrets and theories.
The relationship between Little Edie and Big Edie is completely fucked. I can’t tell who’s crazier, but Little Edie is certainly more lucid. The women sit around in their bedroom for most of the documentary, alternately complaining about how the other has ruined their life and remembering the good old days when they were both young and beautiful. Here, in a scene that held me rapt in horrified attention, Big Edie sings “Tea for Two.”
There were so many other scenes that were similarly terrifying: Little Edie feeding raccoons in the attic, cats pissing and shitting on the women’s beds, Little Edie dancing in tights in the front hallway to music only she can hear or understand, Big Edie in a fancy outfit at her birthday party as if everything is as it was in her youth, Little Edie spinning weirdly sexual conspiracy theories about their handyman – “The Marble Faun.” The whole movie was a shocking illustration of total madness, and watching it was deeply uncomfortable and altering.
In doing research for this post, the thing that surprised most was how positive most people’s reactions were to the movie. There is an “Oh what sweet old ladies!” tone all over the interwebs. I’m not sure what this means. Do most people not know how to recognize extreme mental illness? Is there an element of romanticism in cat-piss laden, raccoon infested faded grandeur that I just can’t understand or appreciate? There is one relatively articulate article here in which the author discusses how his horror gave way to appreciation after four (!) viewings. I will NOT be testing this theory – once was enough for me.
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