Grey Gardens

Collected Works: Film


Grey Gardens

directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer

View a still from the film

A middle-aged, upper-class woman and her elderly mother live in a rundown mansion, in an affluent area of East Hampton, New York. Feral cats, raccoons, fleas, and rats live freely alongside them. The pair, ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ Beale, bicker and pick at each other’s pasts, actions, and appearance. They flick through old photographs: ‘I thought I was the cat’s pyjamas in that!’ shouts one. ‘See how pretty Edie was when she was young?’ asks the other. ‘It’s perfectly foolish of her not to look that way now.’

The Beales’ squalor sits at odds with their high-profile connections: Big and Little Edie are, respectively, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, former First Lady of the United States. When the Beales’ unusual living arrangement hit the newspaper headlines in the early seventies, intrigued documentarians Albert and David Maysles asked permission to film footage inside their house. Not only did the directors have their request accepted; they were welcomed with open arms.

Despite their reclusive nature, the Beales appear to love the limelight; the eye of the camera rests just as happily on them as it did on their famous relation. Big Edie is never more animated than when singing along to old vinyl recordings. Little Edie is keen to show off her dancing skills and clothing choices, revelling in the presence of the Maysles brothers. Although attention-seeking at times, the Beales’ behaviour captures the squabbling companionship of mother and daughter.

The mansion, which gives the film its title, forms an intriguing backdrop. Its enigmatic name refers to the colour of sea mist and the cement garden walls, the natural and the artificial. Its glamorous past is offset by its current state of dilapidation. But the real story here is not the property; it is the people who leave lasting memories. Grey Gardens throws the Beales’ complex familial dynamic into sharp focus. As Big Edie and Little Edie’s abode crumbles, the affection that they share endears and endures.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

You can watch the 2015 re-release trailer here. John Patterson has written about the film's influence for The Guardian; Nathan Rabin has written on its beauty for The Dissolve; and J. Bryan Lowder has written on its camp legacy for Slate.

Question of the day

Which documentaries would you recommend, and why?
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The Overnighters, directed by Jesse Moss, about a pastor in North Dakota who shelters men who strike out due to drugs or mental health issues. A truly engrossing documentary about tolerance, forgiveness, and human failings. (→)

– Black Marble, electronic musician (via The Brief →)

Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog. An unsettling yet funny documentary that covers the almost unbelievable story of a man who spent years living with bears. (→)

– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

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