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April 04, 2011

Grey Gardens - Classic Film Pick

Grey-gardensFilmmaker siblings Albert and David Maysles's had a flair for stumbling into ripe vérité subject matter. Their 1970 Rolling Stones documentary "Gimme Shelter" was already considered a classic in 1975 when the Maysles spent six weeks filming "Grey Gardens."
True to its gothic designation, Grey Gardens is a dilapidated 28-room mansion in East Hampton, New York occupied by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's aunt Edith Beale and her similarly named daughter. The once grand beachfront estate sits in utter squalor. Its once opulent wall garden is overgrown with weeds. Although you wouldn't guess it, the disused estate was cleaned up in 1972 by Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill after the Suffolk County Health Department threatened to seize the property.

Less than three years later raccoons, rats, cats, and fleas compete for space at the feet of the aristocratic mother and daughter who hold court on a pair of litter-strewn twin beds. Both are obviously insane. "Big Edie" breaks into song--she was an accomplished Manhattan singer in her youth--just as often as "Little Edie" slips into rants about leaving her mother and Grey Gardens once and for all. Little Edie is never glimpsed without a scarf or towel covering the hair that she complains about losing. When she reads, she uses a magnifying glass that she holds inches from her eyes. She frequently speaks of things her "faau-thur" told her. Little Edie is right out of "The Great Gatsby."

Grey Gardens2
"Grey Gardens" plays like an all too real version of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" It is a backdoor view into New York's 20th century aristocracy. Dreams have been shattered yet the aging mother and daughter cling to the fraying edges of their reality. Both imagine reentering New York high society. Empty cat food cans pile up. Raccoons eat away at the walls. When Albert Maysles's camera shifts focus to zoom in on the ice cream container Big Edie eats from, you get the meaning of cinéma vérité.


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