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The gayness of Grey Gardens.

OUT OF ALL the thousands of films I have watched as a student, critic, or university instructor, undoubtedly one of the strangest experiences I've ever had was sitting through a 25th anniversary screening of Grey Gardens at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000. Perhaps one of the best ways I could describe it was as a frisson--a moment so fraught with emotional tension that I can still recall the perspiration that soaked my hands as I took it in.

The 1975 documentary was made by the fraternal filmmaking team of David and Albert Maysles, who had previously created such landmark films as Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), which became notorious for having captured the stabbing murder of a Rolling Stones fan at their ill-fated Altamont (California) concert. In the early 70's, the Maysles set out to make a documentary about the extended family of former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. But when they reached the dilapidated East Hampton mansion called Grey Gardens, they knew that they needed to go no further. There they found the aunt and cousin of the former first lady, a mother and daughter--Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier, respectively--who appeared stuck in another era, clinging to their aristocratic past while feeding a small army of cats and raccoons in a house that was literally falling apart. Gaining the trust of Big Edie (then almost eighty) and Little Edie (56), they filmed at Grey Gardens for several weeks, then artfully edited their footage, crafting an exquisite feature.

It was only after seeing Grey Gardens at the festival that I learned that the film has a large and active gay cult following. (The extras included interviews with gay fashion designers who heralded the influence of Little Edie on their work.) In 2001, the documentary was honored with a Criterion Collection DVD release, which would prove to be the beginning of an ongoing Grey Gardens revival. The film has even seeped into the mainstream culture, overwhelmingly as a result of its queer admirers. That same year, Rufus Wainwright, the gay crooner famous for writing sad, melancholic songs, wrote a sad, melancholic song inspired by the film, titled simply "Grey Gardens." In 2006, Grey Gardens received the musical theatre treatment when three gay men, Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, adapted the film into a musical play that would go on to win Obies and Tonys, with Time Magazine heralding it as the number one show of 2006. The film continues to grow in stature: the dramatic feature version starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange went into wide release in late 2008, its screenplay co-written by lesbian filmmaker Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park) and Michael Sucsy.

With all this going on, it's worth asking just why Grey Gardens has emerged as such an enduring fixture of GLBT culture. While the gay connection flies under some critics' radar--for example, Ray Murray makes no mention of the gay connection in his otherwise exhaustive 1992 volume Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video--most have given the film its due. (Alonso Duralde lists it in his 2005 book 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men.) Given the sheer volume of loud and growing gay fandom surrounding the film, it's now safe to recognize Grey Gardens as belonging to the ranks of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Showgirls (1995)--films that have come to be regarded as iconically gay despite the fact that they were never intended that way by their creators.

The fact that Grey Gardens proved so triumphant in its stage variation makes perfect sense. From the early moments of the documentary, it's clear that the two women are performing for the camera, often in operatic strides. At times, the collision between their lives and the lives of famous fictional characters approaches the surreal. During several key sequences, Little Edie appears to blame her mother for her old-maid status, recalling the tortured family relations of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and, most potently, Tennessee Williams. As Thomas Waueh has noted, theirs are self-conscious performances, acts that the filmmakers themselves readily acknowledge. When Little Edie greets the Maysles and their camera at the front door of the mansion, one of the Maysles announces that the "gentleman callers" have arrived, a clear reference to A Glass Menagerie. What's more, these performances for the camera and the cameo appearances of their hired workers give Grey Gardens an eerie resemblance to Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder's tragedy about a washed-up silent film star lost in the post-silent-film era. Further comparisons can be made to other watershed Hollywood productions, notably What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in that Big Edie and Little Edie are co-dependent family members, one virtually an invalid. (Notably, both Boulevard and Baby Jane have acquired GLBT followings.)

When asked, those involved with the various incarnations of Grey Gardens have responded with a fairly transparent, though entirely understandable, answer: the Edies were outsiders, so gay people could readily identify with them. When I asked Albert Maysles about the film's huge gay following during a 2005 interview, he responded: "These women are total outsiders, and they've chosen to be." Christine Ebersole, the actress who won a Tony for portraying both Big and Little Edie in the stage musical, expatiated on the gay-as-outsider theme during a TV interview to promote the show, venturing to suggest that more and more Americans--and not just gay and lesbian ones--could relate to the Edies as the Bush years came to a close, precisely because so many people were now feeling like beleaguered outsiders who were no longer part of "mainstream" America after eight years of Republican rule.


But their very outsider status is tied to something that I suspect went straight to the core of the film's original appeal to gay audiences in the 70's: the fact that Little Edie appears to be mad. Her madness manifests itself in her turning a skirt into a headscarf and in her declaration that the workman they've hired to do odd jobs around the house is secretly in love with her. (This statement lends the film another gay dimension, given that this workman now lives in New York and has revealed in interviews that he's gay.) Given her circumstances, Little Edie's madness is no mystery: she was a defiant woman trapped in a time when the rules of the game didn't give women much space to define themselves. Despite her social class--or perhaps because of it--someone so unable to conform could only be an outcast. This is what made her such a powerful draw for gay men in 1975: it was only two years earlier that the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders. It took another two years for the American Psychological Association to follow suit, meaning that this decision was ratified in the same year as Grey Gardens' original release. It's hard for younger GLBT people to imagine now, but in the mid-70's homosexuality was still very much associated with mental illness in the collective public imagination, something that can't have been lost on gay audiences. (It further added to the sense that you were watching a lost Tennessee Williams script.)

Interestingly enough, Maysles has always rejected the argument that Little Edie is insane. Once when I moderated a master class with the filmmaker at a Montreal film festival, I referred to Little Edie as schizophrenic, and Maysles later e-mailed me with a correction. "One important thing. Edie was not schizophrenic. Eccentric, non-conformist, but definitely not schizophrenic." I tend to take Maysles at his word--he knew Little Edie very well and remained in touch with her until her death in 2002. Still, one is troubled by a scene in the film in which Edie retreats to the attic and whispers her fears into the camera, claiming that someone has been stealing things and removing them from the mansion. This appears to be a bout of paranoid delusion and at least a partial descent into madness.

One straight academic, after attending a Grey Gardens screening at which Maysles appeared, mentioned to me in private that he was "concerned that the two women were being laughed at and reduced to spectacle." One could ask why the word spectacle might itself be reduced to a pejorative, but I also think it important to raise the issue of laughter, something that does accompany public screenings of Grey Gardens. In watching Little Edie's performances in which she choreographs her own bizarre dance numbers throughout the house, it's impossible not to be amused by the sheer amateurishness of every move, thrust, and shimmy. Here's where a queer reading is crucial, and where the notion of camp reaches a high-water mark. Grey Gardens is a hit precisely because it's so damn funny--so rife with bathos, to put it in much more formal terms. Laughter, as gay artists and audiences alike know, is not to be dismissed with disdain. Consider how gay filmmakers have had a singular ability to make us laugh while evoking terrible emotional anguish. R.W. Fassbinder comes to mind, as do members of the New Queer Cinema that emerged in the early 1990's, notably Pedro Almodovar and Todd Haynes. It is the complexity and collision of emotions that make Grey Gardens so intriguing and so queer. These women seem emblematic of the shift between pre-and post-Stonewall mentalities: they're liberated but repressed, happy but often miserable, trapped in the house but freed from the strict moral codes of their uptight neighborhood.

When Albeit Maysles discussed the Edies' outsider status in relation to the film's gay appeal, he elaborated on this complexity: "There was this weird kind of paradox about them being outsiders. They also became these ultimate insiders because they got to be in the film. So how did they do that? Outsiders often want desperately to be insiders. The women in Grey Gardens got both. I suppose that's true of homosexuals: they would like to be accepted for who they are, but maintain their individuality."

Indeed, the two women in Grey Gardens seemed more than comfortable with their portrayal. When Big Edie lay on her deathbed years after the film had been released, Little Edie asked her if there was anything she wanted to say. "Nothing," Big Edie reportedly said. "It's all in the movie." And when Little Edie was asked if she had any issues with Grey Gardens, she responded that her only lament was that she wished there had been more scenes of her dancing! In fact, Grey Gardens concludes with Little Edie practicing her moves in a room, alone. So ends a stunning camp film, rife with contradiction, an alternately hilarious and devastating portrait of two outcasts who had survived and even triumphed despite this state of affairs.

Matthew Hays teaches film studies at Concordia University and is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (2008, Arsenal Pulp Press).
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Title Annotation:a documentary movie by David and Albert Maysles
Author:Hays, Matthew
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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