With most personality-driven documentaries, we make a deal with the devil that our watching serves some larger purpose, that we’re not just gawking at the subject for our own voyeuristic pleasure. To call one documentary out on this and not another is to court hypocrisy, yet this devil’s bargain is at the root of my trouble with Grey Gardens.
A team of documentarians – Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Muffie Meyer are all credited as directors – descended upon the decrepit East Hampton estate of Edith Beale, who had been living there for decades with her fiftysomething daughter, Edie. These two have already been spared eviction once, when close relative Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis provided funds to clean things up before the health department intervened. Yet by the time the filmmakers arrive things are quickly returning to squalor. Edith, nearly 80 at time of filming, barely leaves her fetid bed, from which she cooks corn, eats ice cream and feeds countless cats. Her daughter, Edie, makes comments about the mess but doesn’t seem to be too bothered by it, considering she occasionally goes to the rotting attic to put out Wonder Bread for the raccoons.
This is meant to be a portrait of a bizarrely co-dependent relationship, and the movie certainly gives startling glimpses into the way these two love/loathe each other. Most of the conversations between them involve Edie’s regret over moving back home and her mother’s declaration that she could have left at any time. Despite this friction, they’re rarely apart. During one awful sequence, in which Edie tries to describe her decorating plans for another room in the house, Edith can be heard screeching in the background, demanding that her daughter come back to the bedroom. Edie tries to ignore the cries, but you can see the demand weighing on her and finally she gives in.
This isn’t to say Edie is the victim. To its credit, Grey Gardens is largely neutral in its technique, so that you never feel that the movie is “choosing” one woman over the other. Yet there is something unseemly in its choice to document the Beales at all. It’s not exactly that mother and daughter are being unwittingly exploited (though one wonders what a psychologist would make of their mental states). It’s that Edith and Edie – who both pursued show-business careers at different points in their lives – are such eager subjects, so willing to let the camera roll with little thought to what, aside from their immediate selves, it might be capturing. If Grey Gardens doesn’t exactly exploit that, the documentary certainly takes dubious advantage.