Grey Gardens, genre influences, and the American Nightmare

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David and Albert Maysles’ documentary film Grey Gardens (1975), a portrait of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale — a mother and daughter with high-society connections living in a squalid mansion in the Hamptons — is recognized as a crowning achievement of the direct cinema movement. Rather than deal in unmitigated reality, however, the film is in fact heavily reliant on our familiarity with two fictional genres, both of which focus on the family home as the site of anxiety and strife: gothic horror and melodrama. On the one hand, the Beales’ crumbling, animal-infested home with its ghosts of eras past engages a gothic sensibility. The camera frequently lingers on Big Edie’s nasty bed, with its myriad unidentified stains, inviting us to share in the filmmakers’ revulsion and fascination. Yet the film also operates in a highly melodramatic mode, chiefly embodied by the mother-daughter relationship. The film’s portrayal of the many quarrels between Big and Little Edie (especially the women’s frequent sighing tales of the loves that could have been) relies heavily on our familiarity with domestic melodramas. Little Edie’s histrionics in particular call to mind Tennessee Williams’ fading, mentally fragile belles — recall her insistence that one of the workers at the home is in love with her. (In this light, the fact that Grey Gardens has been adapted as both a narrative film and a Broadway musical seems particularly fitting.) In this essay, I intend to explore the ways in which these historically low-brow genres play out in both the construction and reception of the Maysles’ documentary. I am particularly interested in linking the role of the family home in Grey Gardens with the role it plays in the gothic and melodramatic modes. In doing so, I hope not only to illuminate the ways in which fiction genres bleed over into documentary, but also demonstrate what their invocation in Grey Gardens can tell us about the society in which the Beales existed.

The East Hampton home for which Grey Gardens is named appears dilapidated and overgrown, especially by comparison to the prim and tasteful homes that populate the rest of the neighborhood. It is important to note, however, that we are seeing it after recent renovations funded by none other than Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, niece of Big Edie and first cousin to Little. As we witness through newspaper headlines in the beginning of the film, the Beales were very nearly evicted from their home due to its unsanitary living conditions (they call the renovations that allowed them to remain in the home a “raid”). In both the melodramatic and gothic traditions, it is the family home that is the site of both love and strife; comfort and anxiety. For the Beales, the rotting, 28-room mansion and its immediate environs are the only place in which their story can be told, for it is here that we are forced to engage them on their own terms. It is telling that, in the first scene in which Little Edie appears, the Maysles greet her out in the garden and wait for her to invite them into the home. Inside their space, it is not they who are outsiders, but us. This notion is also signaled by the film’s iconic cover image, which fittingly evokes a sensibility and an aesthetic that is pure gothic: In her furs and signature head-covering, Little Edie looks out at us warily, reproachfully, from the front of the property. The home is framed by dead foliage and leafless trees, and its darkened windows seem to echo her gaze. The cover fits perfectly Edgar Allen Poe’s description of the House of Usher:

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low on the heavens, I had been passing alone … and at length found myself within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I knew not how it was — but, within with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit…” (Poe 1)

The idea of the “haunted house,” already suggested by the cover art,[1] is further promoted within the opening sequences of the film: the dimly lit mansion is first presented from the inside, as the camera moves from the windows and staircase to a large hole in the wall where offscreen voices tell us a cat has gone missing. Elements of the gothic are continually evoked throughout the film. Little Edie frequently cites her fears of the country house and the natural wilderness that is gradually reclaiming it: “In the first place it makes me terribly nervous. I’m scared to death of doors, locks, people roaming around in the background, under the trees, in the bushes. I’m absolutely terrified.” We are forced to wonder if the line between past and present, which Little Edie says is “awful difficult” to maintain, has anything to do with these anxieties: is the home haunted by memories, even traumas? “An article in the scandal sheet of The National Enquirer from October 22, 1972 claims that Little Edie told the article’s author that there were three ghosts living in Grey Gardens, ghosts that had been stirred up by the renovations that kept the Beales from being evicted” (Rhodes 98). While feeding her pet raccoons in the attic, Little Edie again infuses the moment with another gothic touch: “Horrors. Someone’s been removing all the books from my room.” Her comment only comes across as comical, however, as it suggests the presence of a mysterious — perhaps supernatural! — excuse for the spectacular lack of order in the home. A contemporary satire on Grey Gardens, a Documentary Now! episode called “Sandy Passage, cleverly takes these implications to their logical conclusion, giving the story a proper found-footage horror ending in the style of The Blair Witch Project.

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What makes a story truly “gothic?” David Baldick describes the storytelling mode in a way that fits Grey Gardens nicely:

For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration…a Gothic tale will invoke the tyranny of the past (a family curse, the survival of archaic forms of despotism and of superstition) with such weight as to stifle the hopes of the present (the liberty of the heroine or hero) within the dead-end of physical incarceration (the dungeon, the locked room, or simply the confinements of the family house closing in upon itself)” (Joplin 45).

The past is continually evoked in Grey Gardens. Little Edie repeatedly blames her mother for her own spinsterhood and isolation. With alarming clarity, she names aristocratic-sounding potential suitors as if we ought to recognize them, even cites exact dates when Big Edie is said to have rebuffed a romantic interest or interfered with Little Edie’s “big chance” as a performer in New York City. Add to this the claustrophobic atmosphere the film conveys despite the mansion’s size. We are told through newspaper clippings that Grey Gardens has 28 rooms, yet over the course of the film we only see five of them, including the attic. The two share a bedroom which doubles as a kitchen and living room (in one scene, Big Edie cooks corn on the cob in her bed). In the bedroom in particular, one truly senses “the confinements of the family house closing in on itself.” This space is where the two listen to old records — including many on which Big Edie’s own voice, at the height of its beauty and refinement, can be heard. There is a melancholy sense of the uncanny as she sings along with her younger self, no longer able to hit all the notes.

Yet with all this talk of its claustrophobic and fearful aspects, it is helpful to consider that the Grey Gardens of the film is more than just a big spooky house to Big and Little Edie. They certainly do not see their home the way that outsiders do (in fact, they rarely see it from the outside at all). There is comfort there too, beyond the fabulous decay. There is also mundanity, joy, strife, and love; all things you’d expect of a family residence. These elements of the Edies’ shared domestic space allow for a reading of the film as a modernist melodrama. For John David Rhodes, the central theme of Grey Gardens (and of most cinema) is one of habitation; “the problem of how one is to live in a house” (102). He notes that, “Given the limits — both historically and contemporarily — placed on women’s autonomy, the female child, much more than the male, will be subject to the rule of the house and the domestic sphere which tend to define, limit, and circumscribe her range of actions within the world” (86). In light of this, he posits that the Edies’ refusal to clean up as their own “program of resistance;” a subversive choice against the norms of female domesticity.[2] In any case, their way of living in the home, as noted previously, is highly unusual. The close quarters between mother and adult daughter — both of them performers as well as outcasts; both single and having long since left their youth behind them — seems to lead naturally into the realm of domestic melodrama, often a mode of could-have-dones and might-have-beens.

The first time we meet the younger Beale, the Maysles deliberately draw connections between Little Edie and the heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire, revealing to us how they see their reclusive subjects: “Hi Edie. Gentleman callers.” The melodramatic, in addition to the gothic, is also suggested in the opening “Whiskers” sequence, a domestic episode in which a scandal is made of the cat being missing. According to Linda Williams, both horror and melodrama are genres of bodily excess. In melodrama, it is an excess of emotion — at the expense of any goal-driven narrative — that defines the genre (in horror, it is violence that is excessive). She writes, “melodrama can encompass a broad range of films marked by ‘lapses’ in realism, by ‘excesses’ of spectacle and displays of primal, even infantile emotions, and by narratives that seem circular and repetitive.” Indeed, the Maysles’ film, while it deftly leads us deeper and deeper into the Beales’ world, does not give either of the Edies a particular character arc or depict any real or metaphorical journey. Instead, its presentation of their life is a cyclical one. The two have lunch, sing, feed the feral cats, forget to feed the feral cats, argue, sun themselves, praise one another, tear one another down, and repeat. Rather than follow any overarching narrative, life in the Beales’ home is composed of “episodes:” Whiskers is lost, the Maysles arrive, the gardener is paid, and so on. Occasional “‘excesses’ of spectacle” and displays of “infantile emotion” — such as the “pink room” sequence, in which Little Edie blames her mother for her missed chances at stardom in 1952 — make for particularly interesting episodes, yet these moments do not seem to drive any overall plot. In the film’s final moments, little if anything appears to have changed for the Edies. Both of them continue to do what they do best — Big Edie is snoozing peacefully in her rotting bed with the cats; Little Edie is performing an improvised dance routine with bows around her ankles. The “circular and repetitive” quality Williams observes in classic melodrama perfectly describes Grey Gardens.

Melodramatic films can be about anybody, but historically they have been “addressed to women in their traditional status under patriarchy — as wives, mothers, abandoned lovers …” The gratuitous emotional displays in melodrama run the risk of provoking embarrassment and/or mirth in the viewer, who watches the (usually female) heroine perform their anguish. Williams asks, “is the weeping woman of melodrama appealing to the abnormal perversions of masochism in female viewers?” (3–4) This would account for the simultaneous discomfort and humor of watching Big Edie’s reaction to her former husband’s recorded motivational sermons (“no emotionalism!” she exclaims admiringly, her eyes misty), or watching Little Edie swoon coquettishly over David Maysles during her infamous dance, a tiny American flag held aloft.

Williams’ examination of the historically “lowbrow” film genres of horror and melodrama is also useful for her investigation into the fantasies and perversions that drive these genres. To each genre she examines, Williams designates a particular temporality. In horror films, for example, things occur “too early:” our heroine is caught off guard in the shower. Events are unfolding before our protagonists are ready, taking them and often the audience by surprise. In melodrama, people have the opposite problem. It is too late. The object of our protagonist’s desire has died without ever make their feelings known; one of the lovers has gone and married someone else, thinking the other is dead. The mode of “too late!” is one in which the Beales operate as well: in their world, there appears to be so much time to think about what could have been and very little time spent thinking about immediate or future concerns, except in most wistfully abstract terms. Again, Documentary Now! helps us understand these modes by taking them to their extreme, as its “Sandy Passage” episode derives comedy from switching between these two temporalities. A fictionalized Little Edie laments, “I made an appointment [with a famous producer], but I came a year late” only seconds before the filmmakers’ gruesome discovery that the mother and daughter have been disemboweling their delivery boys — and are about to do the same to them, right now! In switching between the “too late” and “too early” modes of melodrama and horror, “Sandy Passage” also activates the latent implications of corporeal violence that the real Grey Gardens can only evoke.

What can be learned from this “melodrama in a haunted house?” Do the Maysles intend merely to entertain and disgust us by taking us into the Beales’ home? Or does their portrait of the Beales reveal something about the society which created them? One scholar of the gothic writes:

In haunted house tales, the outwardly concentric circles of self, family, house, land, and nation seem to suggest mutually defining figures for each other. What binds them together is the American Dream, so tightly, in fact, that we cannot read the haunted “house” in personal or local terms alone. The American Nightmare, the terrifying and disrupting counterpart to the American Dream, manifests itself as the personal trauma of a frightened character (or characters, as a family), but it is never merely personal: the outer world, the terrain, the very soil of the nation, is equally haunted (Joplin 42).

It is no coincidence that the period of the 1950s figures largely in Little Edie’s yearning for the past. We understand from photographs and her own memories that it was then that she was wealthy and beautiful, and that life was full of economic and romantic promise. But American viewers in the 1970s would have also associated this time period as one of naïve optimism, patriotism, and consumerism. The basic logic of the “American Dream” is that the wealthy are deserving, because they have worked very hard, but you can be wealthy too if you tried a little harder, and that is what makes this country great. Its logic makes sense in the economic boom of 1950s America, but when Grey Gardens was filmed, at the end of an economic recession in the United States, it had become laughable. When Little Edie yearns for the time she was a high-society debutante and an aspiring actress, she also yearns for a time before Vietnam, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Watergate Scandal — moments that would shatter America’s image of itself. Quite often, the way the Beales are represented satirizes the American Dream. The rotting mansion, the champagne poured into Dixie cups, the Wonder Bread fed to raccoons, the improvised military dances in makeshift costumes: all of these elements represent the lurid disintegration of the Dream. The tragic melodrama of the Beales is a story of two women rejected by the American ruling class who, in their reenactments of the Dream, show it to be a kind of sad farce. That the Beales are the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O. only highlights the “tragedy” of their downfall and fits perfectly with a conception of them as representing “the terrifying and disrupting counterpart to the American Dream.” Girls[3] who play by the strict rules governing dress, comportment, and the proper performance of gender may become First Lady; who do not are excluded from parties, cut off financially, and ultimately abandoned by their families. Grey Gardens is fixated on this counterpart, the “American Nightmare.”

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But this investigation into the “gothic” and the “melodramatic” has merely provided the right words for what viewers of Grey Gardens already sense intuitively. Far from revealing any objective truth, the documentary instead reveals a truth about American society in the 1970s, filtered through the Beales’ performance of themselves and the Maysles’ conscious or unconscious attraction to the coded language of genre fiction. The haunted house where our melodrama takes place is one in which a nation’s fraught memories come out to play dress-up.

Works Cited

Joplin, Benjamin, and Schmid, David. “New Breed, Old Blood: Gothic Horror in Contemporary Fiction and Film.” New Breed, Old Blood: Gothic Horror in Contemporary Fiction and Film, 2006, pp. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Maysles, Albert and David Maysles, directors. Grey Gardens. Maysles Films, Inc., 1975.

Meyers, Seth. “Sandy Passage.” Documentary Now!, season 1, episode 1, IFC.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher. Langworthy & Amp; Swift, 1903.

Rhodes, John David. “‘Concentrated Ground’: ‘Grey Gardens’ and the Cinema of the Domestic.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 47, no. 1, 2006, pp. 83–105. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41552449.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1212758.

[1] Interestingly enough, most covers of the fictionalized film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange highlight the melodramatic elements of the mother-daughter relationship: the Beales are represented together, usually emphasizing the eccentricity and humor of their familial interaction.

[2] I want to agree with him here, but after several viewings of Grey Gardens I began to suspect that the Edies, with their high-society origins, simply do not know how to clean house or how care for themselves without the aid of waitstaff. Little Edie’s humorously feeble gestures toward tidying or “redecorating,” and the way both Edies regard favored objects that have become dusty with such abject hopelessness, suggest that the cleaning process remains a mystery to them.

[3] Presuming they are beautiful, well-connected, and Caucasian.

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