There’s Nothing Grey About These Gardens: Revisiting the Cult-Classic Documentary
I am not the film-buff I would like to be – I don’t enjoy films whose grainy footage doesn’t even come close to the videos my little 2007 Nokia could shoot. Spending hours searching for a decent-quality version, struggling to make out the words, forcing laughs at references that fly over my head – old films just are not for me. But Grey Gardens was.
Often mentioned in contemporary guilty pleasures such as The Real Housewives of New York, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, it seemed to me like all roads led to Grey Gardens. This documentary gives a glimpse into the lives of an elderly mother-daughter duo, both named Edith, who prefix their names with “Big” and “Little”, respective of their ages. Their home, ‘Grey Gardens’, sits in New York’s Hamptons, a place predominantly occupied by the extravagant vacation homes of the elite, fitted with turquoise-tiled pools despite being just a few steps away from the beach. But their dwelling is a decrepit thorn in this lavish landscape: a place where raccoons are king, and trees grow through the floorboards. The Edies’ home has long lost its beauty, its grey structure now towering over the withered gardens like a house of horrors.
Little Edie is something of a Rapunzel figure, having been forced to abandon her blossoming life in New York to return to the confines of her mother’s deteriorating mansion, where she has remained since. It is hard to believe that this is a documentary, given the exquisitely crafted characters and vivid backdrop, which together tell the sort of distinctive story usually found in carefully constructed feature films. From the newspaper cuttings in the opening title sequence, we learn of the weekend’s salacious piece of gossip: Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin are at risk of eviction, due to the state of disrepair their once-glamorous home has fallen into. The aunt and cousin in question? The Edies of course.
The articles feature photos of Little Edie, dressed to the nines in a conservatively long skirt, mild statement of a belt and one of her signature headscarves, concealing her alopecia. She stands next to a mountain of used tins, leftovers spilling over the brim, and two of the duo’s many cats. With the disintegrating walls visible behind her, it looks like a scene from The Blair Witch Project.
But Little Edie is not in distress, she is posing. She knew cousin Jackie O was their only hope of fixing up the house, and she knew very well how to make that happen. Needless to say, it worked like a charm. Critics of the film must have overlooked her ingenuity when they labeled her ‘crazy’ and detached from reality. Quite the contrary – she was smart, which was simply unfathomable to the predominantly male critics of the time. Instead, they branded both her and Big Edie as ‘deeply, seriously mentally ill’, with no medical evidence to support their claims - just misogyny.
This is nothing the Edies hadn’t heard before from the gossipy townsfolk, and they treat the sting of such scrutiny with the same remedy used for their hardships: humour, in its campest form. They are not unaware of their dire circumstances, they have accepted them, and by voicing them they take away their critics’ power, whether that be their neighbours or the wider public.
In one particular scene, Little Edie attempts to push a thumbtack into the wall and, after struggling for a couple of seconds, declares ‘I think I have the saddest life’. These moments of wit come when you least expect them, and are so starkly contrasted with the situation at hand that you cannot help but laugh. Perhaps my favourite feature of the film is the magnifying glass Little Edie uses, instead of glasses, to read her horoscopes. ‘All I have to do is find this Libra man’, she proclaims. Don’t we all, Edie.
We shouldn’t pity these women, because they are not victims of their situation. They emerge from the rubble like heroes, refusing to be discouraged despite the loneliness and financial struggles they face. Big Edie is content with her life, asserting that she had her cake, ‘loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything’ she wanted, and Little Edie remains hopeful too, putting on several musical performances throughout the film: from out-singing her musically-gifted mother, to parading around the foyer in a one-piece swimsuit waving an American flag. Upon being put down by her mother, she responds indignantly: ‘Are you absolutely crazy? There isn't anything I can't do’.
Yet, cracks in their cheerful façade are visible, and moments of humour reveal the Edies’ almost melancholic vulnerability. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Little Edie spots one of the cats relieving itself behind an elegantly framed portrait of her mother clutching her pearls. When she points this out, Big Edie wryly responds: ‘I’m glad somebody’s doing something they want to do’.
It is hard to imagine how debilitated both women must have felt by their situation, which makes their optimism and sharp wit even more astounding. Big Edie’s fear of being alone was so immense, she would stop at nothing to have a companion. This included sabotaging her daughter’s career prospects, stripping her of her economic independence, and thus forcing her to return home. Although Little Edie took every opportunity to express her unhappiness with this toxically co-dependent arrangement, it did seem to bring both women comfort. It was perhaps this comfort that made the risk of venturing independently into the outside world so daunting: at least in Grey Gardens they knew they would not be alone.
Given the film's context, it does perhaps make sense that male critics failed to pick up on these nuances. Society provided men with the freedom and confidence to be independent: their aspirations were rarely doubted, much less disapproved of. Critics didn’t know of the crippling pressure societal judgement applied to women’s agency, and thus couldn’t comprehend the complexities of the Edies and their relationship. This shines a light on how women’s stories are often told, interpreted and judged by those who do not understand their struggles, motivations or desires. It’s much easier to call them ‘crazy’. But the Edies weren't. It is more likely that they were merely seeking to lean on each other, but unfortunately, since neither could uplift the other, they descended into chaos – both literal and metaphorical.
As a viewer in 2020, you can't help but root for Little Edie. She does not come across as ‘crazy’, ‘delusional’ or any of the other adjectives rooted in misogyny that used by film critics at the time, but rather, as self-aware. Watching her dance, sing, and even speak (in that delightful New York accent) sparks joy, not judgment. Though we might question the potentially exploitative intentions of the directors, the star power of the Edies is undeniable. Perhaps this is an ode to the joys of ‘old films’ in the end, without it, these remarkable women would otherwise have been buried in history - or rubble - with nothing but a couple of headlines about a derelict house to signify their existence. And that just wouldn’t have been right.
After graduating from Law in one of the worst years for the job market, Ivan chose to dedicate his time to the things that really mattered: coming up with the perfect tagline for his eventual appearance on one of the Real Housewives franchises. He finds inspiration from a wide variety of films, some of which serve to build up his bank of pretentious discussion topics at dinner parties. To unwind from these strenuous tasks, he day-drinks to Kylie Minogue’s virtual concerts, but will also occasionally read Thomas Hardy, for balance.