Decades before reality TV shows made celebrities out of the unknowns who appeared on them, a riveting documentary entitled Grey Gardens transformed two reclusive eccentrics into enduring cult figures. Its stars were a pair of American aristocrats – the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis no less – living in squalor in their crumbling, cat-infested Long Island mansion.
As brothers Albert and David Maysles filmed them, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, bickered, reminisced, sang, danced, bickered some more, served highly suspect snacks and sipped cocktails from jam jars.
While Mrs Beale sang old songs and shouted orders from a bed strewn with cats, litter and mouldy books, Edie – a vision in homemade “costumes”, always involving a lot of 56-year-old leg and a scarf fashioned into a turban – flirted with the filmmakers, served Wonder Bread to the resident raccoons, and performed dance routines, one of which was briefly a YouTube favourite, set with brilliant precision to Madonna’s Hung Up.
Watching speeded-up footage of the now-deceased Edie earnestly performing her military manoeuvres might sound sick, but, as with every other manifestation of the Grey Gardens phenomenon, the video was made with affection for an astonishing real-life character who has inspired a Broadway musical and a Hollywood movie.
As Albert Maysles explained to me in 2007, the making of Grey Gardens – which is being screened on Channel 4 this week and is also available on DVD – only came about by chance.
“We were originally going to make a film about Lee Radziwell [Jackie Kennedy's sister] and her childhood. We had just started filming when she got a call from Edie saying she needed some help because the Board of Health was after them. We were filming when we met her, and we just switched over to making a film about her and her mother. I think Lee felt a little upstaged!”
The 28-room seaside mansion was so overrun with manky cats that the Maysleses wore flea collars round their ankles during the six-week shoot in 1974, yet the house had been through a major clean-up just a couple of years previously. Sanitary officers had found that the house, with no running water and cat faeces and rubbish everywhere, violated every building code.
In the film, the Beales refer to this part of their story as the time they were “raided”, putting a kind of romantic, Prohibition-era, spin on events that would have shamed most ordinary folk.
But then, these were no ordinary folk. Not only were they the eccentric branch of a prominent American family, but they were also, according to Maysles, “really talented people”. Indeed, one of the reasons that fans remember huge chunks of the two Edies’ unscripted dialogue is that they were very intelligent and erudite women with a colourful turn of phrase.
Their house may have gone to rack and ruin, but their minds hadn’t – though, as Edie muses at one point, “it’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.”
Given that neither woman had been out of the house for more than 20 years, it’s easy to dismiss them as a pair of Miss Havishams – except that they weren’t bitter and twisted. Informed by Edie that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, the imperious Mrs Beale argues: “I did. I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” This despite the fact that she has already said: “I was going to be a professional singer. When I met Mr Beale, the jig was up.”
Edie, meanwhile, complains continuously about her mother nipping her career in the bud and chasing away her suitors, but she clearly doesn’t hate her for it.
So what was Albert Maysles’s take on the relationship? Did Mrs Beale stop Edie from having a life of her own? “Absolutely not,” he said. “Edie just adored her mother, to the point that she couldn’t get away from her. I think that they each got something good and something not so good out of it. The whole thing was in a delicate balance.”
While both women criticise each other, there is also plenty of mutual admiration on display in the film. Edie is fiercely proud of her mother’s singing and desperate to show what a beautiful bride she was (cue another fight, with the wedding picture being torn).
Mrs Beale, admiring 30-year-old photos of her daughter – a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe in her Norma Jean Baker days – points out that “it’s perfectly foolish of Edie not to look like that now!”.
While Mrs Beale and Edie may have been recluses, they were probably the most sociable recluses imaginable. Which helps explain why they agreed to be filmed.
Maysles said: “There’s an odd sort of psychology there. They left the aristocratic family behind them so they could really be themselves. Mrs Beale couldn’t be a singer, and Edie couldn’t be a dancer, and still be a Bouvier. So they stay in the house and revel in their singing and dancing and being themselves. Then we come along and say: ‘We like you just the way you are.’ What could be better for them?
“They loved the whole idea of the film, and they loved it when it was finished. We brought a projector to the house and showed it to them. When it was over, Edie shouted in a very loud voice: ‘The Maysles have created a classic!’ “
Having stayed in touch with the women for the rest of their lives – Mrs Beale died in 1977 and Edie in 2002 – Maysles was adamant that they were the same whether they were being filmed or not. “Yes, they were aware of our presence, but our presence is an accepting presence where they feel quite comfortable about continuing just as they were.”
Only a handful of times in the film does either of them refer to the fact that they’re on camera – most memorably when Edie hisses: “the movie, the movie!” at her mother when Mrs Beale threatens to get naked.
Occasionally, the squabbles become quite vicious, and one wonders whether the filmmakers were tempted to step in. “No,” said Maysles emphatically. “You don’t intervene.” Nor was he ever embarrassed by the Beales’ antics. “I started out as a psychologist, so my understanding and acceptance of people was greater than that of most people,” he explained to me.
Given how fond the Maysles brothers quickly became of them, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Mrs Beale and Edie have not endeared themselves to successive generations of viewers. The cult began in the late 1970s when Maysles began to hear about Grey Gardens parties.
“People would dress up like the two of them and trade quotations from the film. Gay men especially relate to them. They have such an appeal to outsiders.”
Edie loved the celebrity that came with the film’s cult success, and was thrilled to find herself being hailed as something of a fashion icon. Indeed, her unique look has inspired fashion spreads and catwalk shows.
For his own part, Maysles rated the film as one of his personal best and was particularly proud of the fact that it deals with “the most profound human relationship – the mother-daughter relationship, which cinema, literature and even psychiatry have neglected.”
This year the Grey Gardens cult peaked with TV screenings of the movie of the same name, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing Mrs Beale and Edie. And there’s talk of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical coming to London.
What on earth would Edie have made of that? Maysles laughed and said that the musical seemed like a natural progression. “After all, Edie always wanted to be dancing and singing.”
* Grey Gardens, Wed/Thurs, Channel 4, 12.45am; Eureka DVD (£19.99)