Criterion Month – Little Edie’s Private Womanhood in ‘Grey Gardens’

Big Edie shouts for Little Edie to stop singing. “Oh Edie, quit it, for god’s sake,” Big Edie protests. Little Edie won’t have it. She keeps singing, above the agony of her mother’s pain. Continues Big Edie, now shouting: “I’m not going to take it. I hope my bathing suit falls off!” The two vie for the loudest presence, and hence, control over the filmic landscape. Little Edie persists. She is a stubborn one. She claims she isn’t at home, but it sure feels like she owns this place. This is Grey Gardens. 

Released in 1975, Grey Gardens is a documentary following the life and times of mansion-dwellers Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale. In something of an oxymoron they are performers living in a secluded space, disparate from the public realm. This particular performance is one of the last in the film— Little Edie Bouvier Beale swirls around her room, alluring the camera to follow her as she aggravates her mother. From what we’ve seen in the rest of the film, the Beale household is usually swaying with the melody of Big Edie’s voice; Little Edie is a dancer, not a singer. Above all, in Grey Gardens Little Edie is a daughter — she is trapped in the abject seclusion of both her mother and her mother’s mansion, the “Grey Gardens” of East Hampton. Little Edie’s performances for the Maysles brothers and their camera, from fashion shows to dance routines, are in an attempt to cross the threshold from her private realm into that of the public. 

Since the Edies are performers in a private space, one might wonder what the pair would do without the watchful eye of the camera glaring at them, encouraging their showmanship: would the singing and dancing persist? Little Edie rarely performs in front of her mother — the dancing we get to see in the movie takes place behind her mother’s back. These routines are cut entirely from the private realm of her life, an act completely in desire for the watchful public eye. The sense of privacy Little Edie feels performing when she is not around her mother allows her to enter the limelight, to expose the self she desires the camera to see. 

The two pick on each other for showing certain sides of themselves to the camera — for example, Big Edie is aggravated when Little Edie sings for the cameramen. Little Edie attempts to get her mother to put on more clothes for them. The camera is all a game of control. There are four directors listed for Grey Gardens — Albert and David Maysles, the men behind the camera, as well as Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, who are credited with the primary editing for the film. This representation behind the scenes of the film certainly adds up to the total result: the presence of men in every filmed scene of the Edies certainly affected their actions. On the other side of things, women edited the final cut, the sum of everything the Maysles experienced in-person.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is Little Edie’s first outfit presentation. “This is the best thing to wear for today,” she prefaces to the camera. The best thing to wear for today, apparently, is a brown turtleneck accompanied by a short brown skirt. Edie continues to explain her outfit, apparently wearing short pants under the skirt and stockings over the pants. “And you can always take the skirt off and wear it as a cape,” she finishes. This scene has been transformed into a musical number — “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” in Doug Wright’s musical adaptation of the film — and parodied by Bill Hader in Documentary, Now! It has become both an iconic outfit and scene, perhaps because of Little Edie’s strange obsession with her clothed appearance — she continuously questions the cameramen as to whether her looks are suitable for the men. Though there are only a handful of men wandering Grey Gardens — a gardener, a housekeeper — yet she is hypersensitive of their eye. The road goes two ways: just as Little Edie controls the cameramen by beckoning them to explain her outfit, they control her with their male gaze.

As Edie wanders off-screen, she mutters one last remark into the camera: “Mother wanted me to wear a kimono, so we had quite a fight.” While Little Edie either fears or attempts to control the male gaze, she entirely resists her mother’s. Occasionally, Big Edie will ask her daughter to dance for the camera. Little Edie never even considers her request, she doesn’t even decline. Little Edie is excited for the idea to dance for the camera when it feels like a grand performance, but when her mother suggests a performance or anything for the camera, but it seems she despises being treated like a child. Over the course of Grey Gardens, Little Edie repetitively attempts to avoid Big Edie’s suggestions, demands, everything — it is as if she demands her own, individual womanhood. 

Little Edie weighs herself on-screen and grows visibly upset with the results. Earlier, in a moment of nostalgia for her old life New York, Little Edie claims she’s got to get out because of the icebox at home. Edie’s is a growing body, a younger woman becoming old, in a stagnant house. In New York there existed room to grow, to perform under the light of an audition, to avoid her mother; in Grey Gardens she is surrounded by everything of her old life. In Grey Gardens, Little Edie says is afraid of any watchful eyes that lurk among the greenery; though there are only a handful of others that exist on the estate, she is nervous in the isolation. But in New York, she claims, she is unafraid of being watched. There are so many people, so many eyes. She’s never scared.

Little Edie stands before a luscious wave of foliage. She warns the camera not to get too close, that things get lost in the plants, alluding to a lost scarf. After it fell in, she could never find it again. The outside world is so large and full of voids — ones in which Little Edie’s noteworthy accessories slip through the cracks and go unseen. At Grey Gardens, she stands out. She dominates the filmic sphere, and though she is dying to escape and earn a larger purpose, at least she has newfound attention while the Maysles are at the mansion. In some of the final moments in Grey Gardens, we watch her swimming. As her head crashes into waves, her arms ebbing and flowing with her stroke, it is as if she becomes an entirely new body. She is void of singing, of dancing, of capes and of skirts. Little Edie is swimming away, but there is no end destination in sight. Either she’ll leave the camera’s view entirely, entering a new private realm, or she’ll return to the institution of her mother and Grey Gardens.

Grey Gardens is such a delightful, entertaining watch because of the resistance Little Edie has against her mother and the residence. The mansion of Grey Gardens resembles that of the body of Big Edie — both attempt to institutionalise Little Edie, and though she attempts to reject the maternal figure, she is trapped on the blurred border of private and public spaces. Grey Gardens will always have control of Little Edie. And thanks to her stunning performances, iconic outfits, and stubborn nature, Little Edie will always have control of Grey Gardens. 


You can find Grey Gardens on Criterion here. You can also watch it on the Criterion Channel


by Fletcher Peters

Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on TwitterLetterboxd, and Instagram.

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