“Grey Gardens”: The lost world of Little Edie, still amazing after 40 years

March 7, 2015 1:06 PM

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The Maysles brothers could never have made the film without becoming friendly with the two Edith Bouvier Beales – now immortalized as “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” – the cousin and elderly aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (respectively) who lived in incredible chaos and decrepitude amid the wealthiest beach town in North America. The filmmakers apparently discovered the Beale household while planning a documentary about Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jackie Onassis (which they promptly abandoned), and spent a year getting to know the two Edies before bringing their 16mm camera into the house. So “Grey Gardens” is not just a portrait of the unbelievable, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”-grade madness they found there, but a tribute to that friendship. That sense of mutual trust and affection comes through in every frame and every scene, even when Little Edie swerves into paranoid delusions or the cats relieve themselves behind the framed portraits, and the film is funnier, better and richer for it.

With her endless array of headscarves, her peculiar, pantyhose-based fashion aesthetic and her old-school, upper-crust Manhattan drawl – an accent long since vanquished by television and the Ivy League – Little Edie is unquestionably the star of “Grey Gardens.” (The first name Marjorie comes out as ...

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