The Beales of Grey Gardens: Still Crazy After All These Years

On Film / Essays — Dec 5, 2006

The Beales are back, and their squalor is making lives brighter all over again! I’ve always worshipped the gals and their strangely powerful fashion choices and nutty but often spot-on philosophies. Having fallen off the society pages and into total ­­­disarray—coexisting with raccoons, cats, and uninvited ghosts in their run-down East Hampton mansion—Edith and Little Edie instantly became my favorite cautionary tale, one that chilled my spine yet still seemed as dangerously inviting as a walk through pre–Rudolph Giuliani Times Square. If I ever had to sink that low and lose everything but the house, I’d want to do it their way, with sass and charisma surviving in the wreckage, at least whenever a camera was on. After going through the biggest social and mental crash landing since the decline of the Romanovs, the Beales came off as daft but somehow zingy, messy but still gorgeous, and always amazing company. Their banter is right out of an Edward Albee play, but just like Albee’s George and Martha, there’s some genuine affection amid all the screechy name-calling and rude finger-pointing. They need each other even more than they needle each other—and years later, it turns out the discerning public still needs them and all the variations on what was obviously the world’s first superbly twisted reality show.

You could almost picture diabolical cable-TV producers having cooked this one up: “Okay, ladies, you’ll live as wacky recluses, without TVs or clocks, and with only an occasional drop-in. You’ve only got each other, some corn, a few articles of clothing that can double as snoods, and a house full of cobwebs and regrets. Now, go!” Of course, this reality show was actually real, making it even more riveting—especially for Peeping Toms like me, who could convince themselves it was a trenchant learning experience about the wicked whims of high society.

What brought the ladies to this bizarre place, holding on to each other with claws out? Well, Edith swears Edie stupidly drove the guys with the money away, but there’s no doubt that—just like the manic girl on that classic Shake ’N Bake commercial—she helped! (Let’s not forget that Edith’s own Mr. Right did her wrong and gave her the dump decades earlier.) And while the guys ran for the hills, the gals’ career dreams evaporated along with all the heat in the mansion. Edith could have been a showbiz contender, and Edie could have easily done harmony on the side while beating Janice Dickinson to the title of “world’s first supermodel.” But both gave up or screwed up or were screwed over, ironically not finding real fame until Grey Gardens came out, in 1976, and made jaws drop around the world. Self-sabotaging every step of the way, they were at rock bottom when they finally stepped into some acceptance and a new chance at their dreams, even if that was partly because it gave a legion of camp followers the chance to sit back and cackle.

Amazingly, their hold on the imagination is still as tight as Edie’s head wraps. Decades later, the Beales’ notoriety keeps growing, to the point where there’s a Yahoo! Group discussing them, a movie in the works starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, and a well-received Broadway musical with Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson as the Wonder Bread–serving weirdos. More than ever, their story invokes awe, discomfort, hilarity, and a feeling of “There but for the grace of God . . .” It appeals to the dark side of human nature, the one that likes to see people who have it all reduced to our level, or even lower. That’s why we sit comfortably in our living rooms and watch perfectly privileged people eat worms and crawl through mud—or lounge at the movies, where beautiful B stars are finding themselves in more grotesque jeopardy than ever. In treacherous times, with real danger in the world, scare-tactic entertainment gives us some controlled fright and a chance to wallow in other people’s pain. That the Beales throw unexpected doses of wit and style into their horror story makes it that much more irresistible. You’re repelled but compelled, creeped but titillated, as you notice that their looks could easily fill today’s runways and that their dining choices represent comfort food at its most divinely sensible.

In 2003, Entertainment Weekly named Grey Gardens one of the top fifty cult movies of all time—in fact, it’s so culty that the DVD should probably come with some Kool-Aid. The religion around the Beales grew even bigger when that stage musical—put together by highbrow creators like Pulitzer winner Douglas Wright—managed to turn all the decay and drama into a certified snob hit. Insiders seem to love the show, their tongues hanging out as their favorite parts of the movie are aped and suggested. And newbies are also agog, especially when the jazzy 1941 doings of Act 1 give way to the dark bizarreness of the seventies, when all hell broke loose. Anyone who thought Gypsy was the darkest musical of all time has suddenly been forced to reconsider; the vicious shouting-duel scene alone makes Mama Rose look like Maria von Trapp.

In June of 2006, the show had a promotional float in New York’s Gay Pride Parade, I guess trying to reach out to the two or three gays who hadn’t seen it yet. And what a float. It featured Ebersole precariously perched atop a gazebo, around which pranced various drag queens either in dramatic snoods or furry raccoon outfits. The whole thing was so wrong it was almost right, and was bold enough to be like something Edie herself would do.

Shortly after that, the Beale parade kept going when Liliana Greenfield-Sanders’s Ghosts of Grey Gardens made it from the festival circuit to PBS. The documentary about the documentary included a new visit to the mansion, an interview with director Albert Maysles, and snippets of Liliana’s own performance piece based on Grey Gardens, done with such dedication I’m convinced she’s related to Jackie Kennedy. I had no idea the girl fostered this particular obsession. As Bette Davis says in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?”

Then, as if out of the sky, came more footage of the Beales, as I shrieked, “Thank you, Jesus!” Responding to the new demand for anything Edie, Maysles went back to the vault and assembled some footage we hadn’t seen before. Called The Beales of Grey Gardens, it played as a midnight movie at the IFC Center, in New York, and now appears on this DVD, where the result doesn’t come off like outtakes at all. A companion piece to Grey Gardens, it could stand on its own as a portrait of two women creatively passing the time as Rome burns. Whether they’re indulging in poetry readings, photography, astrological chart analysis, or putting out fires, these two really know how to fill out a day. There’s not much fighting this time around, but there’s lots of showing off and carrying on, Beale-style, to mask all the sadness of their missed opportunities. The film climaxes with Edie—with her manicured eyebrows—lamenting the way things change, disintegrate, and leave you, as individuality is inevitably steamrolled into conformity. “As you get older . . . your friends just fade away,” she says sadly. Fortunately, the Beales will always be with us.