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Living and Dying and Dancing in Grey Gardens

Living and Dying and Dancing in Grey Gardens


Today we hit a simultaneously serious and campy note with, of all things, a documentary. I'm watching Albert and David Maysles' Grey Gardens.

Grey Gardens (1975)

It's my mother's house and she owns it.

If you have not ever ventured into Grey Gardens territory, be forewarned - this is not an easy watch. It's a documentary with very little guidance (no talking heads, no voiceover, no helpful commentary), and a shooting style that is as close to cinéma vérité as possible.

It is also simultaneously peculiar and mundane, devastating and absurd, joyful and immensely sad. It is a mother-daughter story, a sister story, a women's story, a hierarchical debacle, and says something about women that may warm your heart and frighten the shit out of you.

It's a lot. That's all I'm saying.

In its hour and a half run time, you are essentially devoting yourself to the quiet observation of two women who never leave the confines of their dilapidated Hamptons estate. It might bore some of you, horrify the rest of you.

Watch the original Grey Gardens trailer:

A few of you will be like, "WTF, this is the best thing I've ever seen" (you're my kind of people, btw, so tweet me so we can be BFFs). No matter - If you want to see a movie that truly passes the Bechdel test* (up for debate - there's a lot of marriage/proposal talk), this is it.

*More to come on the Bechdel test a bit later - I had a pretty fantastic request to tally up all of February's movies and see how they rank, so I'll do a post in early March going into this feminist "test" in depth.

The Maysles 1975 documentary Grey Gardens is both devastating and romantic, serious and more than a little crazy | See the full review and join in on #ChickFlickFebruary at

Considering this work in terms of #ChickFlickFebruary, here are the themes that resonate most:

  • Mothers and daughters: This is the story of a daughter who never left her mother's house, and the story of a mother who never married off her daughter. They support each other (poorly), and are never, ever free of each other.
  • Women and other women: There is an incredible amount of infighting between Big Edie and Little Edie. This seems natural considering their terribly close confines, but because this movie is about two women who have no other real relationships in their lives, it says something about how women interact with each other. They both see men as something they might have liked, but also something they'll never have. They see the world in terms of each other only, yet can't forget the place that men are supposed to play in their lives. It is a harrowing metaphor for how modern women live in outside world - independent, but oppressed. Strong (or S-T-A-U-N-C-H, as little Edie puts it), but defeated.
  • The Male Gaze: We have to think about this, because this is literally the product of two male cinematographers pointing their cameras at women. Sure, it's a documentary offering as realistic a depiction as possible, but what does it mean that the people choosing the perspective are male? They are observing women living in a way that traditional gender ideals shame - as literal cat ladies, left in squalor without the men that were to "manage" and take care of them. For more on the concept, see this post from a few weeks back.

Best Shots/Scenes:

I've got quite a list here, but The Maysles really, really, really know how to capture moments on film.

The opening sequence of shots of each Hamptons mansion, ending at the ruins of Grey Gardens. There is no better set of establishing shots EVER. It just sets the tone immediately.

For the most part, the Maysles don't break the fourth wall (at least not themselves - the Edies are constantly talking to them, like ghosts in the walls), but when they do, it makes an impression. There's a moment while the ladies are arguing and the camera catches the two filmmakers in the mirror. A quick zoom refocuses the lens from their figures to the reflection of a portrait - presumably of one of the Edies - on the wall. It's like they saw an opportunity to pack all of the symbolism of the film into one shot, and they took it beautifully. After all, what better way to describe the dismal end of Grey Gardens than in the reflection of a perfect portrait of two women (it could be either of them - mother or daughter), mirrored and backwards, existing forever on the wall, the opposite of the decay and demise occurring in reality. It's poetic, it's a great spontaneous moment, it's great filmmaking.

I dare you to watch this film and not be totally taken by little Edie's dance.

The Maysles 1975 documentary Grey Gardens is both devastating and romantic, serious and more than a little crazy | See the full review and join in on #ChickFlickFebruary at

Essentially challenged by her mother (who insists she could never do a "military" style dance), Edie dresses the part, American flag and all, and performs for The Maysles' camera. Is it silly? Is it sad? Is it a proud moment for a woman who hasn't had one in quite some time? No matter, she lights up from within, and she says it herself - if only The Maysles (and their camera) could have been there, always. Think of how different her life could have been. It could have been. But it isn't.

Other Things to Notice: 

I mean, everything.

You could (and should) watch this many times, and always see something new. Beyond the "women's picture" theme we're focused on this month, you'll find gorgeous and sad metaphors regarding American idealism, the myth of status, class, and lineage, and the decay of the traditional American home. And if I'm depressing you, no worries - there's a case to be made for the strength of both Edies, too. The fact that despite the condition of their giant old home, they are both still beautiful to each other, both still alive, and STAUNCH. S-T-A-U-N-C-H (I will never get enough of that line).

You can watch the Criterion edition of Grey Gardens right now on Hulu Plus.

If You Like it, Watch:

Pink Flamingoes (1972): I know that John Waters made this before Grey Gardens, but you watch it and tell me that they don't have similarities. Except, Waters' story is outrageously fictitious, and Divine is the QUEEN OF TRASH. This is not for everyone, but it is definitely for some.

Great Expectations (1946), (1998), (2012): Grey Gardens gives me a serious Miss Havisham vibe, so aside from just directing you to read Great Expectations (especially if you hated reading it in high school), may I suggest any number of film versions. The 1946 David Lean version is the classic, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the weirdly contemporary take with Gwenyth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke from 1998 (and an unknown Alfonso Cuaron directed). I have not seen Mike Newell's 2012 version in its entirety, but it's worth it simply for Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham ('cause basically, this is how I envision Carter in real life -#iwokeuplikethis)

Crumb (1994): If you'd prefer to continue in the disturbing documentary category, take a break from the ladies and hang out with Robert Crumb for an hour or two. Actually, hang out mostly with Robert's brother Charles, and please, please, please - prepare yourself. There is nothing like the Terry Zwigoff directed masterpiece (and if it helps you to understand, it was produced by David Lynch).

The Maysles 1975 documentary Grey Gardens is both devastating and romantic, serious and more than a little crazy | See the full review and join in on #ChickFlickFebruary at

Want in on the February Challenge?

Start with the first post – All That Jazz is a Chick Flick.

Check out previous picks, like yesterday's Beyond the Lights.

Then tweet me and tag me in your instagrams with your chick flick favorites using the hashtag #thischickpicks.

*This post contains affiliate links – I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Of course, I stand by every film, dvd, or book I link you to, and hope you’re cool with this – if not, don’t click!*

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