Documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter) bring us inside the isolated world of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ eccentric aunt and first cousin, ‘Big’ Edie and ‘Little’ Edie Beale. The women, 79 and 57 respectively, live in squalor at the title mansion, a dilapidated house full of garbage, cats, and raccoons. As former socialites and entertainers, they spend their days reminiscing about the past, singing, dancing, and — perhaps more than anything else — arguing.
The Maysles brothers let the women tell their own story, through things said and unsaid. We gather that Little Edie moved in about twenty-five years ago – but was it to take care of her aging mother, or to be taken care of? It’s the subject of much bitter debate between the two women, as Little Edie sometimes likes to claim her mother has robbed her of her life. Big Edie, who prefers to be nude most of the time (always covered when on camera), professes to be proud of her life and even belts out a few tunes for the audience. She’s not too bad for an old broad. But be prepared to cover your ears when Little Edie tries to rival her abilities. The younger Beale’s attempts to hold onto her fading youth are among the saddest and unintentionally funny moments in the movie.
The filmmakers’ verite approach works for the most part, but I wish there were a little more structure to the narrative. Without interference, the women squabble for far too long about the same old things. But there’s no denying the Maysles captured something authentically bizarre during their trip to Grey Gardens. You won’t forget this mother and daughter duo anytime soon.