Grey Gardens is a 1975 Documentary focusing on two eccentric East Hampton recluses, near-bedridden Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie"), and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale, (known as "Little Edie") as they live their lives in their decaying mansion. The duo were the respective aunt and first cousin of former U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and rubbed elbows with America's elite before their fall from grace, losing their fortune and ending up with only themselves and the house to hold onto. Once a stately society home, Grey Gardens is now crumbling, full of garbage, deprived of running water and infested with cats, raccoons and countless fleas, having been left totally neglected by the residents for well over 30 years.
Both Big and Little Edie were delighted to be the subject of Albert and David Maysles' film, which is made up of the two telling anecdotes about their unusual lives, performing for the camera, giving their opinions on various topics and going about their daily routines- be it putting together an outfit from random bits and pieces found around the house, or tipping a bag of stale Wonderbread out on the floor for the raccoons. The resulting film is strangely haunting, camp, funny and sad all at once.
Big Edie died in 1977 at the age of 81, four years after the film was shot and the year after Grey Gardens was released in theatres. Little Edie sold the house in 1979 to Washington Post owner Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn, on the condition that it not be torn down. The house was extensively remodeled and still stands today. Little Edie lived in New York City, Florida, and elsewhere before her death in Florida in 2002 at the age of 84.
HBO made a dramatic film about the Beales, also titled Grey Gardens starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. A Broadway musical of the same name produced by East of Doheny also opened in 2006, winning several Tony awards. The documentary was parodied for the first episode of the Mockumentary Genre Anthology series Documentary Now!.
Grey Gardens contains examples of:
- Age-Inappropriate Dress: What, a swimsuit and fishnet tights isn't a respectable outfit for someone pushing 60? How about a strapless top for someone pushing 80? Also, neither Edie seems to be interested in wearing a bra.
- Bald Women: Little Edie, who always wears decorative scarves (sweaters or towels also do in a pinch) on her head. (She had the skin disease alopecia totalis, which makes literally all the hair on the body fall out.)
- Big Fancy House: The titular house, of course. Ironically, even though it had 28 rooms, they spent most of their time in just three of them and left the rest filled with crap.
- Blithe Spirit: Little Edie really wants to be this and acts like a free spirit who is there to brighten up her old mother's dull life, but in one memorable Out-of-Character Moment near the end she becomes somber and confesses that she hates living at Grey Gardens and wishes she could move and live a normal life.
- Blue Blood: The Beales come from one of the oldest, wealthiest families in America.
- The Care Taker: Little Edie, who came to look after her mother and the house when nobody else would.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Both ladies, but Little Edie in particular.
- Cloud Cuckoolanders Minder: Little Edie, despite being a Cloud Cuckoolander herself.
- Cool Old Ladies: Despite their disgusting living conditions, both women have a lot of interesting stories to tell about their high-society lives and are very engaging. The filmmakers took quite a shine to them as well.
- Crazy Cat Lady: Could be Ur-Example. A lot of the fictional cat ladies in various works have been inspired by the Beales. The scene where Big Edie matter-of-factly notes that one of the cats is urinating behind her portrait stands out.
- Taken Up to Eleven in the scene where it is shown they aren't just crazy cat ladies but are crazy raccoon ladies as well, as they go up to the attic to feed the feral raccoons that live there.
- Crazy Consumption: The eating habits of both women are very strange (see Dog Food Diet below) and include eating a whole pint of ice cream with a knife, and having corn right out of the pot while in bed. Big Edie is shown cooking on a hot plate on her bedside table, which has to be a fire hazard.
- Creator Cameo: The Maysles brothers appear several times, mainly as reflections in mirrors that happen to be in the shot. The Beales also talk to them and refer to them by name from time to time.
- Dancing with Myself: In one scene, Little Edie, who has always loved dancing, shows that she still remembers her choreography as she dances along to an old record, while waving an American flag no less.
- Deadpan Snarker: Big Edie.Little Edie: You can't have your cake and eat it, too in life.Big Edie: Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.
- Determinator: Big Edie's wish was to die in Grey Gardens, despite pressure to sell it due to lack of funds. She got her wish a year after the documentary was filmed.
- Dog Food Diet: In one scene Little Edie opens up a can of cat food, which the Beales eat spread on crackers.
- Duet Bonding: After badgering her daughter repeatedly about her allegedly off-key singing, Big Edie does join her in singing in one scene.
- The Dutiful Daughter: Little Edie sees herself this way. She did not want to move into Grey Gardens and would rather have married an upper-class husband and lived her own life, but became a spinster because her mother has literally no one else.
- Fan Disservice: Big Edie, 78 years old, exposing her breasts for the camera when the tank top that she probably should not be wearing slips off. Of course, as the whole film shows, Big Edie is now several decades past giving a crap.
- Genki Girl: Little Edie, who has an astounding amount of vitality for a 57 year old.
- Handy Man: "The Marble Faun", Jerry Torre, the teenaged handyman who is the only person who regulary visits the Beales. Little Edie thinks that Jerry wants sex with her and also is terrified at the prospect that he might move in and become a companion to Big Edie. Torre, who was gay, never did move into the house. He surfaced thirty-odd years later, working as a cab driver in New York City.
- I Coulda Been a Contender!: Little Edie muses at length about how she could have done so much more with her life: she had a university education, was a talented singer and dancer, came from a high-society family and ought to have married a scion of some old money family like her own. Instead she gave all of it up to live in a dilapidated mansion with her elderly, demanding mother.
- I Was Quite a Looker: Not for nothing did Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore play the Beales in the HBO movie, since the old photographs shown throughout the documentary make it clear that they both were lovely in their younger days. Little Edie's society nickname was "Body Beautiful Beale", and it's easy to see why◊. She did some modeling work as well.
- Impoverished Patrician: The film does not provide a lot of explanation for how the Beales ended up in their condition, other than mentioning that Big Edie's husband had left her. Big Edie received child support but no alimony. Her father then cut her out of his will, except for a $65,000 trust which was out of her control, leaving her only $300 per month.
- Isn't It Ironic?: Big Edie singing "Tea for Two", with its idyllic portrait of domestic bliss darkly echoing the Beales' current situation.No friends or relationsOn weekend vacations
- Kind Hearted Cat Lovers: Despite being barely able to care for themselves, the two dote on their many cats in their own way.
- Living Emotional Crutch: Mother and daughter are this for each other.
- Malaproper: Big Edie: "My body is a very precious place. It's concentrated ground."
- My Beloved Smother: Big Edie. Any scenes Little Edie has on her own usually have her mother calling for her in the background.
- Never Bareheaded: Little Edie, who, due to her baldness, wears a series of scarves throughout the movie, and a swimming cap when she goes swimming in the ocean.
- Not-So-Abandoned Building: The house looks so derelict from the outside and is so shabby and overgrown with plants that it would be natural to assume it's abandoned, except for the occasional sighting of Little Edie outside. (Big Edie refused to leave the house as a rule).
- Old Maid: Little Edie, who has conflicting feelings about the matter.
- The Pig-Pen:
- Big Edie in particular, as she lays on a mattress covered in garbage and filth. Little Edie normally looks tidier and cleaner and keeps her side of their shared bedroom neater.
- The filthy, dilapidated Grey Gardens is shown as it looked after Jackie Onassis paid to have it repaired and cleaned up.
- Rummage Sale Reject: Little Edie, who somehow makes it work for her. Her style has inspired collections from Dior, Galliano and many others.
- Trash of the Titans: Grey Gardens itself. The way it appears in the documentary was after a massive clean up, and it still qualifies!
- Vitriolic Best Buds: For all their squabbling, they clearly adore one another.
- Woman Child: Little Edie is childlike to the point of some people suspecting arrested development.