A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Grey Gardens, the 1970s documentary about a codependent mother and daughter who related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is a tragicomic portrait of two women who have seen better days. As such, the behavior and living conditions of these two might be a bit much for younger, less mature viewers. "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" are often seen in their shared bedroom drinking rum and Coke while arguing about the events that led to their shared destiny of living together for decades in the crumbling mansion named Grey Gardens. Their behavior is erratic and eccentric at best, but what emerges is a provocative portrait of two fiercely independent women who lived through a time and high society where the options for women who wanted to shape their own destinies were limited, and must live with those consequences.
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What's the story?
In 1972, tabloids were beginning to report on the living conditions of an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale. The Easthampton, New York mansion where the two had lived for decades -- GREY GARDENS -- lacked running water, was infested with fleas, and was also home to dozens of raccoons and cats. Faced with eviction and condemnation of Grey Gardens, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis arrived in the nick of time, paying for all necessary repairs to keep Big and Little Edie from being evicted by the authorities. At the same time, Albert and David Maysles, documentarians best known for the films Salesman and Gimme Shelter, became interested in their stories while trying to shoot a documentary about other, better known members of their family. The result is Grey Gardens, the story of the aftermath of a long fall from high society's graces, a codependent and reclusive mother and daughter living as much in the past as the present, and the lines between eccentricity and mental illness against a backdrop of glamor, wealth, and prestige that had so defined the JFK/Camelot recent past.
Is it any good?
This is a brilliant, tragicomic documentary. Early in GREY GARDENS, "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale tells the camera, "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present." Much of the rest of the movie takes this quote and runs with it. After living together in near-seclusion for over 20 years (the reasons why they live together and continue to live together are never specified, but it becomes obvious they have nowhere else to go, in spite of Little Edie's yearning to leave), this mother and daughter are often seen in their shared bedroom rehashing past events, opening up old resentments, disagreeing about central facts to their stories, as cats and raccoons have free rein in the rest of their crumbling mansion.
And yet, in spite of the specific circumstances, Grey Gardens raises provocative and universal questions about mental illness, how eccentricity is perceived by society, and aging. In less gifted hands, the obvious problems of Big and Little Edie would have been exploited and abused for cheap laughter, but with the Maysles Brothers, what emerges is a three-dimensional portrait of two women forced by their own peculiar circumstances to create a reality that is as much pictures in scrapbooks as it is a rundown mansion.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how "Big Edie" and "Little Edie's" personality and temperaments are shown on film. What do you notice about the relationship between the filmmakers and the film's subjects, how they interact, and how that effects the way Big and Little Edie reveal themselves and their relationship?
How are Big and Little Edie's backstories conveyed?
Contrast Grey Gardens with reality television shows where people living in somewhat similar conditions of squalor are conveyed with far less empathy. How does Grey Gardens manage to present a more compassionate documentation of these two, as opposed to reality television's tendencies to be far more manipulative and exploitative?
- In theaters: May 13, 1976
- On DVD or streaming: August 14, 2001
- Cast: Brooks Hyers, Edith Bouvier Beale
- Directors: Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
- Studio: Criterion Collection
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 100 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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