Grey Gardens, genre influences, and the American Nightmare

Anna Weltner
13 min readJun 4, 2019

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…

Anna Weltner

Non-fiction filmmaker, writer, and editor.