Documentaries are meant to test the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. They’re supposed to bring new knowledge to an otherwise ignorant audience and inform them of it. This information is usually also something that challenges the viewers status quo. It could be revolutionary, horrific, countercultural or even just a little bit edgy. But documentaries are meant to show us the world around us in different shades of grey than we’re used to, and there no period of filmmaking that personified this more than the Cinema Verite movement in the 60’s and 70’s. But is there a line?
Is there a point where we can all collectively say that enough is enough and that a certain film shouldn’t have been made? If there was ever a film that that could be said about, I believe that it could be Grey Gardens. The famous doc by Albert and David Maysles about the lives of a mother and daughter who were once members of an elite part of society and who now (during the time of the documentary) live as hermits in a decrepit old mansion. It’s controversial for many reasons, and I hope to explore the reasons why and question if this documentary should’ve even been made at all.
First, let’s start at the beginning, how the Maysles brothers began shooting the documentary in the first place. In 1972, Lee Radziwill, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, came to the Maysles brothers and asked them to shoot a film about her childhood. One of the locations she gave them to scout and potentially shoot was an old home she used to live in in the East Hamptons called Grey Gardens that had since become overrun with vegetation and decrepit. When the Maysles brothers went to see the home, however, they became fascinated with the residents, namely Edith Beale and her daughter Edith (Big Edie nd Little Edie, respectively).
The two women’s dynamic, which largely consists of arguments both small and large, and their current state of living is troubling for a multitude of reasons which we’ll get into here but it nonetheless fascinated the Maysles brothers. They then decided to change the topic of their film project and focus on the mother and daughter. So, they created a film which examines the life of the mother and daughter, which is odd to say the least. As I mentioned, they live in isolation in a large mansion. The house is unkempt and plants are growing at will all over it, infested by cats, raccoons and and fleas.
They have little contact with anyone else, with the only visitor to the house being a young man named Jerry who comes around to fix up things around the house and keep Little Edie company. The two women spend their days traipsing around the house and talking about their past lives, namely how Little Edie was supposedly a model and in demand young socialite with the men her age in New York. This is one of the main things they spend their time arguing about- exactly HOW popular Little Edie was with men in her heyday and how Big Edie drove away a lot of potential suitors for her daughter.
At first the women seem to be little more than eccentric, just a little boisterous and unafraid of any topic of conversation. As the film progresses though it becomes increasingly clear that the women aren’t just a little odd. They’re dealing with mental illness. In my opinion, a very strong degree of mental illness. Both Little Edie and Big Edie display signs of this, including denial of obvious problems (their deteriorating house), social withdrawal, confused thinking, and even some mood swings. This poor mental health is most shown through Little Edie’s behavior.
She quite literally goes around the house singing and dancing, trying to prove how talented she is. She also seems emotionally distressed for a good chunk of the film, expressing resentment towards her mother for squandering her potential in her youth and repeatedly declaring that she “needs to get out this place”, with her even quite viciously attacking her mother verbally towards the end of the film. She also spouts lines like “It’s very hard to keep the line between the past and the present. ” quite regularly.
Some people could look at this and ignore it, but I think this is instead a thinly veiled attempt at covering up her own ability to determine what is reality and what isn’t. Her obsession with clothes and creating new outfits from towels, bed sheets and random accessories also doesn’t help the case for her mental stability. The film by and large paints the picture of a distressed woman, one who undoub would benefit from psychological help and desires to be rescued from her current surroundings. This all leads me to my main question? Why the hell were the Maysles’ brothers filming these women?
Why were they allowed such an intimate look at two mentally ill people’s lives with basically no restrictions? It’s hard to say exactly why but both of the Beale’s agreed to be filmed so technically the Maysles brothers had every legal right to go and take hundreds of hours worth of footage of the Edie’s. But did they have the ethical and moral obligation to not film these two women? That’s a little harder to answer. On one hand, documentary filmmaking, and “cinema verite” l”direct cinema” in particular, are supposed to give us unflinching looks at life.
They’re not supposed to sugarcoat anything and they’re not meant to take our feelings into account. If something makes us uncomfortable that’s supposed to be a good thing. And no one can possibly deny that Grey Gardens definitely does all these things. One also can’t deny that Grey Gardens does have a good tale to tell. Showing the ugly side of high society and how they can fall from great heights and elite status into poverty just like you and I can is a very fascinating narrative. It’s something that if Thad never seen Grey Gardens I never would’ve really thought about it in any sort of meaningful way.
But is this a story that really needed to be told? Is there a line to all of this? And if so, is that line exploiting the mentally ill? As a society, we’ve all kind of mutually agreed abuse of the mentally ill is close to as bad of a crime as you can get. There are huge groups of thought that exist to better the protection of the mentally ill in order to ensure they get the help they need and are able to operate in modern society as well as they possibly can. Entire industries are built around it, in fact. I believe it’s because we as humans inherently pity those who lack full control of themselves emotionally.
I believe that it’s possible even if someone is a racist they could still have a healthy amount of empathy and compassion someone who was suffering as Little Edie was. That’s why when this film came out it was hugely controversial with critics and audiences alike. People derided the Maysles brothers for opening up the Beale’s personal lives to mockery. The brothers, however, staunchly defended their final product, citing their artistic integrity in the filmmaking process. Furthermore, the Beale’s loved the movie, thinking it painted them in a great light. This opens up a whole new set of questions though.
Like how were the women ok with being portrayed as- essentially- eccentric social outcasts at best and lunatics at worst. This gives me even more ammo in my argument that they were grievously disillusioned by reality. Even still, they weren’t mad by the end product so why should we be? For me, it’s a matter of morality. Do we have the right to exploit the mentally ill in order to make a commentary on society, one that might not even be that important in the long run? I was raised to look out for those who aren’t as well off as I am, in any capacity. And no matter how I look at it I can’t help but feel wrong whenever I watch Grey Gardens.
There’s something about the way Little Edie talks to the Maysles’ brothers with such optimism and unbridled openness that it’s sad to think that the directors decided not to show in the film. Who knows if they ever told Edie what their true intentions were about making the film, but it certainly didn’t seem like she was aware. There is another part of me, however, who think this film should have been made. I’m an actor and I’m always told that you have to take risks in your art. Like it or not, the Maysles took a risk with this film. And at the end of the day who am I, or who is anyone, to judge art?
Films have been made about edgier content and people haven’t gotten up in arms about those movies. Perhaps it’s the fact that this film walks such a delicate line. Though the Maysles defended their film to the end, I doubt that they couldn’t understand the skepticism surrounding their ideas. And I’m sure that their intentions were not malicious in nature when they set out to make this film. I’m just not so sure that their good intentions should be considered before the well-being and privacy of two mentally ill women. Like I said, I am not sure if I am the one who should be passing judgement on the Maysles brothers.
If nothing else positive came from Grey Gardens, it led us as a society (and as a film class) to have a larger discussion around morality and mental health and what is right and what is wrong. If something can lead us to begin talking like that then suppose it can’t be completely devoid of worth. Creating a community of well informed and socially aware citizens is not only what we should be aiming for in our own lives, but it’s one of the goals of documentary filmmaking in the first place. Besides, who knows? Maybe that was the Maysles brother’s reason for making this movie in the first place.