(21 may 2006)
three nights ago, after much hoopla and an unprecedented “very very long wait” on netflix, i made some fry rye, kept the diet cokes coming, curled up on the red couch and prepared to be dazzled. at long last i saw grey gardens. and now i know: this is the film they show in hell.
it’s a “cult classic.” apparently people in artsy circles laugh over and love this movie. in the special features, there’s todd oldham beaming as he joyously recalls his first 15 viewings. but beneath the camp, lie extremes of familial desperation and devotion on a tragic, alarmingly intimate scale that nearly sapped my will to live. as the mayles brothers’ cameras follow little edie’s fishnet clad legs up the darkened, trash-filled stairwell- the cats scattering out of her way- it’s hard not to remember but for a twist of fate, this could be your grandmother, your aunt, you.
i don’t exactly relish stark portraits of explicitly female eccentricity- most especially in documentaries. we’re supposed to laugh and be charmed but it’s not particularly charming or funny. feminine regret is even worse. it’s fatal. everything you live through makes you you, as you are today. even the accidents, the bad choices, the things you did as well as the things you didn’t. everything. it falls together into you.
grey gardens is an unflinching hour and a half of two women trapped alone together in regret. obsessive, oppressive, life-long, inescapable regret. a dramedy unfolding within a decaying mansion drenched in cat pee. fun times.
big edie was once a gorgeous singer. now her voice is scratchy, her glassy blue eyes are dulled by cataracts. little edie wanted to be an actress, a dancer, a star. now she’s little more than a zany caretaker. big edie says little edie made the choice to return to her, while little edie makes it clear she’d rather be anywhere else: “in here i’m just, you know, mother’s little daughter.” out there, who knows what she might have become.
just tacking up a picture, little edie concludes: “i’ve got the saddest life.” it’s supposed to be evidence of her cutting wit, but in light of her self-consciousness- the constant tugging on her headcovering and checking of her cleopatra make-up and primping of her painted-on eyebrows- it isn’t funny. we’re watching a thwarted actress acting her heart out. yet, because she looks incredibly uncomfortable in the camera’s glare, it doesn’t seem like acting. it seems real. which is terribly sad.
but the edies love one another and despite her fierce anger, little edie admits that the woman who just told her “everything is perfectly disgusting on account of you,” is actually “a lot of fun.” she says, “i hope she doesn’t die.” we know she died less than a year later. we know that edie would live on for 26 years. alone. and even with music, art, and dance, in little edie’s words, “raccoons and cats become a little bit boring. i mean for too long a time.”
so just for a glimmer of a moment, grey gardens kind of scared me. i thought: i have a cat! i could easily have 27! i think raccoons are cute! i wear florals with plaids! i’m single! i love my mum! am i doomed? i know i’m not. but the next morning, just after stepping out of the shower and donning pink leopard-print houseshoes, a red kimono, and wrapping my hair in a lime green towel, a telemarketer called. he cheerily inquired, “ma’am, may i please speak with the male head of the household?” alarmed by this unexpected discrimination, i indignantly replied- a little too loudly and in an unexpectedly spitfire tone- “i’m the only head in this household!” and promptly hung up.
i stood there, a staunch woman in a revolutionary outfit, laughing. my cat smiled. in the end, it’s probably worth the very very long wait.