Film: Tea for Two

Grey Gardens, 1975I’ll tell you the whole thing, you might as well face it…

It’s not my favorite thing to jump into the fray of commentary whenever a topic is so fully absorbed by the quotidian, but since I’ve never written about Grey Gardens before, I thought this might be a good time to enter the palaver. In case you’ve been under a rock lately, HBO is showing its much-awaited film of Grey Gardens this coming Saturday night. This film is based upon the lives of the eccentric mother-daughter team of Bouvier Beales, whose antics were originally showcased in the Maysles’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. The Bouvier Beales, known commonly as Big and Little Edie, were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Bouvier Radziwill. So, to recap, it’s a movie named Grey Gardens based upon a documentary named Grey Gardens which was named for the house Grey Gardens which is where two women named Edie lived most of their lives. But you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?

The HBO film will feature Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, with Jessica Lange as Big Edie, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie Onassis. This film is drawing upon the cultish popularity of the Maysles’ original documentary, and liberally filling in the blanks with gorgeous period flashbacks. Suffice it to say, I can hardly wait to see it.

So, why Grey Gardens? What is the big deal anyways? I was once told by a close friend of mine that this film was an essential for anyone remotely interested in today’s fashion. Understood to be a “fashion touch-stone”, Grey Gardens shows a real dose of the Miss Havisham-ish tattered elegance celebrated (and imitated) by Peter Som, John Galliano, and Marc Jacobs. Not sure what to expect, I first watched the documentary years ago, and almost had to turn it off I was in such a state of shock. After all this time, the film is still more than a little shocking to me – that two formerly well-to-do women of such high intelligence would allow themselves to live in such uncomfortable squalor – but I am still fascinated with each subsequent viewing.

Little Edie's famous swimsuitThe look is so incredible that even the most talented designer could only "interpret" such style. But, is it really style when it’s so unconsciously done? Once one gets past Little Edie’s “best costume for today…” the first visual to note is the palette. The washed out grays, greens, and faded pinks of the house are the perfect foil for Little Edie’s psychedelic floral print swimsuit, patterned knits, and vibrantly colorful ensembles. Or how about Big Edie’s famously off-kilter spectacles and striped sun hat? Then there are the real mementos shown: sepia-tinted studio portraits from bygone days, a stately painting propped in a corner, antique records, brooches, and dress clips. These glimpses of past luxury, along with moments of painted furniture, faded wicker chairs, sleeping cats, and newspapers spread on every surface, create the splendor and squalor that is so unsettling.

“It’s very difficult to keep the lines between the past and the present…You know what I mean?” – Little Edie Beale

It’s so clear that these women know, or once knew, a world of beauty, wealth, parties, society, and comfort. More than this, a world of education and discourse. Little Edie quotes poetry throughout the documentary, and even goes so far as to write some lines of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam on a bedroom wall. Obviously, Convent of the Sacred Heart and Miss Porter’s School (called “Farmington” by Little Edie) made their mark. Why then are these women eating ice cream with plastic knives and boiling corn on a hot plate next to their bed? Is this style, or just cockeyed tragedy? Even as the viewer grows in discomfort watching this charade, the Beales adamantly defy you to pity them. They have fun: singing, dancing, sunbathing, swimming, redecorating rooms, feeding raccoons Cat Chow, and generally antagonizing each other. It seems as though they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Grey Gardens, 2009The Maysles brothers show this counterpoint so beautifully. It is difficult to reconcile that the women in the old photographs are the same women in the film. Who were they then? What choices did they make? Who did they love? What happened? It’s a bit like finding one’s own old family photos and wondering if those long-past, never-met relatives had anything in common with who we are today. Perhaps this is the appeal? That mystery of life and its many everyday choices is common to everyone, but here it’s more genteel, more privileged, and played out to an unfortunate end with the cameras rolling.

But I’m pulverized by this latest thing: more unfortunate than the Beales is the way that the cult following of Grey Gardens has turned into a commercial free-for-all. It seems that every one of Little Edie’s idiosyncratic sayings has its own associated product, from “STAUNCH” t-shirts, to red shoe paperweights (“You know they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.”), to the replica Grey Gardens brooch. While the Edies would laugh at this type of thing, the entire point of Grey Gardens was the entirely singular, unconscious look of the entire thing. The Edies weren’t trying to be anything other than themselves, and that is always the best style to have.

Of course, with the new film on HBO coming this weekend, the myth will continue to be sold off in pieces at an even faster pace.

For Grey Gardens images and mementos, visit Grey Gardens Online.

A fabulous post full of Little Edie images from The Errant Aesthe.

A post from the W Editor’s Blog, interviewing Sally Quinn, who (with her husband Ben Bradlee) purchased Grey Gardens from Little Edie in 1979.

Eric Wilson’s article on the style of the Grey Gardens HBO film from today’s New York Times.