The landmark 1975 documentary Grey Gardens has evolved into a mainstream pop cultural phenomenon, in large part because of a queer cult following
Of all of the thousands of films I have watched as a student, critic or university instructor, undoubtedly one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had was sitting through an anniversary screening of Grey Gardens at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000. Perhaps one of the best ways I could describe it was as a frisson—a moment so fraught with emotional tension I can still recall the perspiration that soaked my hands as I took it in.
The 1975 documentary was made by the fraternal filmmaking team of David and Albert Maysles (co-directed with editors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer), who had previously created such landmarks as Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), the latter of which became notorious for having captured the stabbing murder of a Rolling Stones fan at one of their ill-fated Altamont concert. In the early ’70s, they then set out to make a documentary about the extended family of former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. But when they reached the dilapidated East Hampton mansion called Grey Gardens, the Maysles knew that they need not go any further. There, they found the aunt and cousin of the former first lady, a mother and daughter—Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively—who appeared stuck in another era, clinging to their aristocratic past while feeding a small army of cats and racoons in a house that was literally falling apart. Gaining the trust of Big Edie (then almost 80) and Little Edie (then 56), they shot at Grey Gardens for several weeks, then artfully edited their footage, crafting an exquisite feature.
After seeing Grey Gardens, I would learn of the epic gay cult following the film had garnered. In 2001, the documentary would be honoured with a Criterion Collection DVD release, one that interviews with gay fashion designers Todd Oldham and John Bartlett, both of who discuss the profound influence Little Edie’s unique wardrobe choices had one them. But this DVD release would be the beginning of what has become an ongoing Grey Gardens moment, in which the film has seeped into the mainstream culture, overwhelmingly as a result of its queer admirers. That same year, the queer crooner famous for writing sad, melancholic songs would write a sad, melancholic song inspired by the film, titled simply “Grey Gardens.” In 2006, Grey Gardens would receive the musical-theatre treatment, when three gay men, Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, would adapt the film into a musical play that would go on to win Obies and Tonys, with Time Magazine heralding it as the number one show of 2006. The film continues to grow in stature: the dramatic feature version, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, will gain wide release in late 2008, its screenplay co-written by lesbian filmmaker Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park).
It is worthwhile, then, to explore precisely why Grey Gardens has emerged as such a vital part of the burgeoning, and perhaps ever-harder-to-define, queer culture. Make no mistake, it has: while it appears to run under some radars—Ray Murray makes no mention of it in his otherwise-exhaustive 1992 tome, Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video, for example—others have given it its due (Alonso Duralde lists it in his 2005 book 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men). Given the sheer volume of loud and growing queer fandom surrounding it, it’s now safe to recognize Grey Gardens as joining the ranks of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Showgirls (1995)—films that have come to be regarded as queer, despite the fact that they were never consciously intended that way during their production.
The fact that Grey Gardens proved so triumphant in its stage variation makes perfect sense. From the early moments of the documentary, it is clear that the two women are performing for the camera, often in operatic strides. At times, the collision between their lives and the lives of famous fictional characters approaches the surreal. During several key sequences, Little Edie appears to blame her mother for her old-maid status, recalling tortured family relations of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and, most potently, Tennessee Williams. As Thomas Waugh has noted, theirs are self-conscious performances, acts that the filmmakers themselves readily acknowledge. (When Little Edie greets the Maysles and their camera at the front door of the mansion, one of the Maysles announces that the “gentleman callers” have arrived, appearing to directly reference A Streetcar Named Desire.) As well, in their performances for the camera and the cameo appearances of their hired workers, Grey Gardens has an eerie resemblance to Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder’s tragedy about a washed-up silent film star lost in a post-silent-film era. Further comparisons can be made to such watershed Hollywood productions, especially What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, given that Big Edie and Little Edie are co-dependent family members, one virtually an invalid. (Notably, both Boulevard and Baby Jane have acquired queer followings.)
When asked, those involved with the various incarnations of Grey Gardens have responded with a fairly obvious, though entirely understandable, answer: the Edies were outsiders, and as such gays could grasp an immediate identification with them. When I asked Albert Maysles about the film’s huge gay following during a 2005 interview, he responded that “These women are total outsiders, and they’ve chosen to be.”
Christine Ebersole, the actress who won a Tony for portraying both Big and Little Edie in the stage musical, elaborated on the gay-outsider connection during a TV interview to promote the show. These two women were outcasts and, she ventured to suggest, more and more Americans could relate to them as the Bush years came to a close, precisely because so many Americans were now feeling like beleaguered outsiders who were surrounded by hostile Republicans.
But their very outsider status is tied in to something that I suspect went straight to the core of the film’s original appeal to gay audiences in 1975. And that would be the fact that Little Edie appears to be mad. Her madness manifests itself in her turning a skirt into a headscarf; her madness further manifests itself when she declares that the workman they’ve hired to do odd jobs around the house is secretly in love with her (this statement lends the film another gay dimension, given that this workman now lives in New York and has revealed in interviews that he is gay, including in a New Yorker profile.) Given her circumstances, Little Edie’s madness is no mystery. She was a defiant woman caught in a time when the rules of the game didn’t give women the space to define themselves. Despite her social class—or perhaps because of it—someone so unable to conform could only be cast out. This is what makes her such a powerful draw for gay men, something that must have meant so much to queer audiences in ’75. Consider that only two years earlier, the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from their official list of mental disorders. And it then took two more years for the American Psychological Association to follow suit in 1975, meaning that decision was ratified the very same year as the release of the original Grey Gardens. It’s hard for younger queers to imagine now, but in the collective public imagination, in the mid-’70s homosexuality was still very much associated with mental illness, something that can’t have been lost on gay audiences. (And further added to the sense that you were watching a lost Tennessee Williams script, given the havoc mental illness wreaked on so many of his protagonists.)
Interestingly, Maysles has always refuted the argument that Little Edie is crazy. When I moderated a master class with the filmmaker at a Montreal film festival I referred to Little Edie as schizophrenic, and repeated this in subsequent writings on the film. Maysles emailed me with a correction. “One important thing,” he wrote. “Edie was not schizophrenic. Eccentric, non-conformist, but definitely not schizophrenic.” I tend to take Maysles at his word—he, of course, knew Little Edie very well and remained in touch with her until her death in 2002. But his assertions seem a bit odd, especially in light of one scene in the film, where Edie retreats to the attic of the mansion and whispers her fears into the camera, claiming that someone has been stealing and removing things from the mansion. This appears to be a bout of paranoid delusion, and at least a partial descent into madness.
The Edies’ alleged madness, and the very capturing of it on film, is what has formed the main controversies surrounding Grey Gardens. Many critics took umbrage with the idea of showing quite so much of these utterly off-kilter characters. When The New York Times attacked the film, Little Edie wrote a letter to the paper defending the movie and her appearance in it. The letters section of the Times chose not to run it. (That the paper known as the Grey Lady didn’t get Grey Gardens was perhaps not surprising.) Maysles has promised to publish Little Edie’s letter, at long last, in the pages of his forthcoming book, A Grey Gardens Scrapbook.
When one straight academic watched a Grey Gardens screening at which Maysles appeared, he commented to me that he was “concerned that the two women were being laughed at and reduced to spectacle.” One could ask why the word spectacle might be reduced to a pejorative, but I think it also important to raise the issue of laughter, something that does accompany public screenings of Grey Gardens.
In watching Little Edie’s performances on the screen, where she choreographs her own bizarre dance numbers throughout the house, it is impossible not to be amused by the sheer amateurishness of every move, thrust and shimmy. But here is where a queer reading is crucial, and where the notion of camp reaches a high water mark. Grey Gardens is rich precisely because it is so damn funny, but also so rife with bathos at the same time. Laughter, as gay artists and audiences alike know, is far more complex than to be dismissed as disdain or derision. As so many great gay filmmakers, for example, have manage to make us laugh while evoking terrible emotional anguish at once. R.W. Fassbinder comes to mind, as do members of the New Queer Cinema that emerged in the early ’90s (in particular Pedro Almodovar and Todd Haynes). It is this complexity and collision of emotions that make Gardens so intriguing and so terrifically queer. These women seem emblematic of the shift between pre- and post-Stonewall mentalities: they are liberated, but repressed; they are happy, but often miserable; trapped in the house, but freed from the strict moral codes and conformity of their uptight neighbourhood.
When Maysles discussed the Edies’ outsider status in relation to the film’s gay appeal, he elaborated on the outsider theory. “There was this weird kind of paradox about them being outsiders. They also became these ultimate insiders because they got to be in the film. So how did they do that? Outsiders often want desperately to be insiders. The women in Grey Gardens got both. I suppose that’s true of homosexuals: they would like to be accepted for who they are, but maintain their individuality.”
Indeed, the two women in Grey Gardens seemed more than comfortable with their portrayal. When Big Edie lay on her death bed years after the film had been released, Little Edie asked her if there was anything she wanted to say. “Nothing,” Big Edie reportedly said. “It’s all in the movie.” And when Little Edie was asked if she had any issues with Grey Gardens, she responded that her only lament was that she wished there’d been more scenes of her dancing in it.
At least she got the last dance step in—Grey Gardens concludes with Little Edie practising her moves in a room, alone. So ends a stunning, camp film, rife with extreme contradiction, an alternately hilarious and devastating portrait of two outcasts who have survived, somehow, and who may or may not be doomed after the final credits fade.
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