Once upon a time, documentaries explored places that captured our imaginations, that offered us insight into a world we dared not go, and that gave us touching and often counterintuitive portraits of people most of us are unlikely ever to meet. Whether it was The Endless Summer, Paris Is Burning, or Scared Straight!, documentary filmmakers used to make a concerted effort to truly portray life as it happens, not for maximum sex appeal, controversy, or plot. And all us poor mortals trapped between Farenheit 9/11 and The Bachelor could do a lot worse than looking back to the extraordinary career of David and Albert Maysles. In the early 1960s, the brothers created a revolution in the world of non-fiction filmmaking. Using handheld cameras and lightweight sound equipment, they brought energy and propinquity to their subjects and gave viewers a chance to witness vulnerability and quiet moments of joy as intimately as though they were in the room--whether it was a door-to-door Bible salesman (Salesman) or Marlon Brando (Meet Marlon Brando). And then of course they made Grey Gardens, a documentary much too subtle to be made today.
David and Albert Maysles were experts at capturing raw moments of life on film. They are best known for the documentaries Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones and The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit, but it is Grey Gardens that is their real masterpiece. The documentary follows a year in the hazy psychosis of Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie), Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis's aunt, and her daughter, Jackie's first cousin, Edith (Little Edie). Raised in opulence and coming from "a good French family," the Bouviers were practically royalty long before the era of Camelot. But the Maysles' film captures the Edies in 1975--living together alone in a flea-infested, dilapidated mansion in the Hamptons with dozens of cats and hundreds of regrets.
What's extraordinary is the sheer lack of opinion shown by the Maysles; while there is certainly sympathy for the women, the viewer is left to decide just what to make of this tragic and unique mother-daughter duo. This is also clearly Little Edie's film more than it is the Maysles'. The Maysles remain hidden from view for almost the entirety of the movie, while Edie creates a stage, drama, dance, costumes, theater, and philosophy at the spur of the moment almost every moment. Her coquettish acknowledgments of the Maysleses seem at first to be nothing more than a performance for the camera. It is tellingly sad that Little Edie--at times seductress, at times winsome child--seems to have been waiting for this camera all her life, waiting for an audience. While at first the viewer cannot help but cringe at the garbage and debris strewn about the house, the dismal state of cleanliness of the women themselves, their affinity for "pate" (read: cat food), or the families of raccoons that riddle the house (which they feed), soon one becomes more enraptured with the imagined and surreal world Little Edie and her mother share as they spiral into a kind of benign madness. The one moment the audience glimpses the Maysles brothers is in the reflection of a mirror--through the looking glass indeed. "You don't see me as I see me, but you're very good at what you do see," purrs Little Edie.
The women are utterly Nabokovian in their unintentionally hilarious word play and single-minded fixations. Big Edie's "companion," after being widowed, was her piano accompanist during her bid at a singing career (you will never hear "Tea for Two" again without Big Edie's haunting rendition coming to mind). But her accompanist also accompanied her to the movies and parties as well, despite the fact the Little Edie couldn't stand his company ("The accompanist was never recognized. I never recognized him"). This doublespeak is also amplified by the women's insanely aristocratic accents--at near-parody levels of wrenching pronunciation, they make a young John Kerry sound positively ghetto. To wit: "They didn't know that I wahs a stownch chahractah. S-T-A-U-N-C-H. Stownch. Thahrs nothing whurse than a stownch womahn," Little Edie declares in a fit of paranoia.
As we learn more about the sadness in these women's lives, their surreal regard for the world becomes more understandable. Little Edie, we come to learn, was a stunningly beautiful young woman who modeled and studied poetry. She begins to blame the downfall of her life on her mother, whom Little Edie said she was forced to take care of and who chased off all of her suitors. While Little Edie starts pacing the disheveled and soiled bedroom, she starts muttering to herself, trying to piece together just how she ended up alone (meanwhile a cat defecates behind a gorgeous oil portrait of Big Edie as a young woman, which is leaning against a wall).
Little Edie screams at Big Edie and makes pronouncements about her mother's cold nature. Big Edie merely scoffs, "Sit down Edie; you're like a crazy person!" as she shifts her position in bed among a number of sleeping cats, an electric hot plate, and hundreds of pages of old newspapers. Big Edie asks Little Edie why she even needs a man. Little Edie whines, "If a womahn doesn't haeve a mahn, they have to go out with othah geeirls or dohgs or something." "Oh! Dogs are lovely!" chirps Big Edie.
While the Maysleses stay removed from the constant arguing, doublespeak, and muttering, they do brilliantly capture a witness to this asylum: Jerry, local kid and handy boy. While to the viewer Jerry looks like a 17-year-old stoner straight out of the movie Breaking Away, to Little Edie he is a gentleman caller. She flirts with him at first, but then, discovering that she can no longer find Nathaniel Hawthorne's book The Marble Faun in the house ("Somebody's been moving things ahround upstaihs. The Mahble Fawhhn is missing! The Mahble Fawhhn!"), she cools to him. This brilliant stroke of footage uniquely captures Little Edie's inability to separate fact from fiction, as she transforms Jerry into Hawthorne's beautiful Italian boy named after a statue who falls into sin. It is a moment and a metaphor so layered and potent that the audience too becomes disoriented: Are these women real or am I watching fiction? Jerry's role as wooer/handy boy in Little Edie's mind textures her lonely world, but it also emphasizes her disconnection and sorrow.
"I was good to my children. I enjoyed them tremendously," Big Edie reports perfunctorily as though she were describing her hat collection. Though her daughter seems like the more troubled of the two, the Maysleses take care to simultaneously show the sneer beneath Big Edie's smile and the childlike joy in her eyes. It becomes clear that perhaps Big Edie did stymie her daughter; perhaps Little Edie was destined for greater moments. "Oh mothah, I'll have to stahht drinking, I cahn't take it anymah!" Little Edie cries out toward the end of the film. The fact that, as is now known, Little Edie went on to have her own cabaret show in Greenwich Village after her mother died seems to lend credence to the idea that this was a woman restrained, who once loosed was bound to become a star. She has since become a cult figure, singer, dancer, film hero, and fashion icon (a woman simply shouldn't leave the house without a cape, a turban, and a brooch).
The Maysleses introduced the world to two extraordinary women who previous to Grey Gardens were nothing more than an irritation to their hygienically aloof privet-paring neighbors. The brothers gave the documentary a depth and composition rarely evinced in the medium since. Little Edie died in 2002 at age 84, but I will always think of her as a young 54--practicing her military dancing in the hallway with green ribbons tied around her ankles, listening to the music, and recalling memories of a better day.
Correction: Crumb was directed by Terry Zwigoff, not Terry Gilliam.
Sacha Zimmerman, a former columnist for TNR.com, is the author of For America: Simple Things Each of Us Can Do To Make The Country Better.
By Sacha Zimmerman