Grey Gardens: Haunting Film About Decadence & Decline in the Hamptons

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Photo by Jennifer Remus on Unsplash

You can hardly be an American without having heard of “the Hamptons.” Even if you don’t know precisely where it is located on a map — the tip of Long Island — you know it as a place where upscale folk have established their upscale digs. Think of Gatsby and you get the picture. Wealth, hoity-toity lifestyles and prominent families.

One such family was the Beales. Phelan Beale was an attorney in partnership with John Vernon Bouvier Jr.. He took a shine to Bouvier’s daughter Edith and proceeded to marry her. The two of them bought a 28-room house in the Hampton’s called Grey Gardens and started a family. Jacqueline Bouvier was Phelan’s partner’s granddaughter and would later become wife of a president and still later be Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

The Beale’s owned the house from 1924 to 1979, though Mr. Beale ultimately left the place to his wife and daughter, who was also named Edith. They became known as “Big” Edie and “Little” Edie.


During the time they lived there the house fell into increasing disrepair and ruin as they were beset by financial difficulties. Their lives crumbled from privileged to pathetic, at which time they were about to be evicted when Little Edie’s cousin Jackie stepped in.

In 1975 a pair of brothers, Albert and David Maysles, produced a documentary on the two women who lived through this prolonged debacle, capturing their dreams, their co-dependency, their battle to maintain their place and their pathos.

In 2009 the story was resurrected for a Broadway musical, and then in 2010 HBO turned into a film called Grey Gardens, starring Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as little Edie. The made-for-TV film was about the making of the original documentary, and these very real people who on one level seem to have been exploited.

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Map of East Hampton on Long Island. (Public domain)

The reviews for this film were deservedly strong, though reviewers had differing interpretations of what happened. One review wrote, “I was uplifted by the ability of these ruined aristocrats to thrive in such conditions. Later, I became weighed down with the dizzying fall they suffered.”

For myself, the story of the estate and its decline brought to mind a novella by Nobel prize winner Andre Gide titled Isabelle. Isabelle begins in the ruins of an old chateau in Normandy. The narrator of the story, Gerard Lacase, is showing some friends around the property where he was once a guest many years earlier as a young university student from Paris. The friends see that he is emotional about the place, and they persuade him to tell his story. The parallel with Grey Gardens: it was an estate with opulence and grandeur that became marred and left a ruin.

Some viewers of Grey Gardens found Big Edie’s determination to stay to be inspirational, but the degree to which the place became a shambles was ultimately pathetic.

HIGHLIGHTS of the movie would include the performances by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. To be quite honest, they were both sensational. I’ve not seen the original documentary but purportedly Barrymore literally became Little Edie. As for Lange, you would never know she was acting. There is not one second where you catch yourself thinking this is a person doing a great job playing a role. The film should be seen simply for that aspect alone. It all has that feeling of authenticity, a real projection of what was.

And then there’s this haunting and wonderful soundtrack by Rachel Portman which really carries you places and conveys that whole sense of beauty and tragedy, life and loss, hope and horror.

Like any good story there are twists you don’t anticipate. Jackie is introduced in a brief scene at the very beginning, which serves to foreshadow her reappearance near the end. The reactions of the two Edies will be surprising, once again adding to the veracity of the narrative.

Others who have seen the film use words like stunning and astonishing to describe it. I believe descriptions are a fair assessment and the film was a true achievement.

On the other hand, some who were intimate with the original documentary felt this to be a betrayal of sorts. Perhaps when I’ve seen the first I’ll be tempted to re-assess. As a film this one holds together with panache.

Trivia: Who bought this house in the Hamptons when Little Edie sold it in 1979?
Answer: Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. During his reign there he published the Pentagon Papers and stood behind his two young reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, in their efforts to unravel the Watergate Scandal.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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