Sarah Polley’s recent documentary Stories We Tell dances coyly around its central thesis of how family members construct their own narratives in a way that best suits their own individual interests. Though she doesn’t portray herself as having any real clue about what the point of her project will be, Polley’s ensemble “cast” of parents and siblings help her come to the understanding that it’s the variations of those stories, not the coherences, that actually form their collective bond. While Stories We Tell may not have been directly influenced by the cult documentary Grey Gardens, the conclusions Polley reaches go a long way toward appreciating the destructive but symbiotic dynamic shared by Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier, not to mention the fascination their cautionary tale has held among the gay community, many of whom (to borrow a chestnut from a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race) had to choose their own families.
“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” the flamboyantly dotty Little Edie muses at one point during the film, while not engaged in a battle royale against or maybe in collusion with her equally theatrical mother. As filmed by verité-lite documentarians Albert and David Maysles (famous for Salesman and the Stones-at-Altamont chronicle Gimme Shelter), Little and Big Edie Beale née Bouvier are natural performers, and seemingly all too happy to allow two gentlemen callers into their crumbling Hamptons estate to capture them whiling away the seasons, singing along to Big Edie’s recordings of “Tea for Two,” selecting “the perfect costume for the day,” which often involves wearing sweaters as skirts and skirts as saharianes. Both are to some degree haunted by a past that has stripped them of their ability to live in the present. Their total neglect for maintaining their living environment characterizes them as proto-hoarders, but of memories, not possessions. In fact, they’ve whittled their living space down to just a few small rooms from what was once a palatial blue-blood estate, huddled in their side-by-side twin beds, surrounded by hundreds of felines and a family or two of raccoons Little Edie leaves Kibbles ’N’ Bits for in the attic.
“In the Hamptons, they can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday,” Little Edie sneers at one point, only slightly keeping the line between eccentricity and insanity. Given the lack of guile either reveal in front of the cameras they’ve invited into their home, it’s not clear whether the Beales have fashioned their lifestyle in conscious defiance of their conservative neighbors or if they truly are blasé about sleeping atop a mottled mélange of newspaper clippings, corn husks, and cat urine. Could their Lysol-ignorant situation be an outgrowth of depression over the men they lost in their lives? (Decades prior, Big Edie’s husband obtained a divorce in Mexico, which she claims the Catholic Church won’t recognize, and more than once Little Edie obsesses over the dreamboat her mother chased away.) Or were they proto-feminists who chased the men away deliberately? One of the underlying themes of the film is that their chosen caste of allies includes mainly gay men, such as Big Edie’s accompanist of yore or their drop-in handyman Jerry, a flea-bitten soul who seems to have stepped right out of a Paul Morrissey tableau. Conversely, one of the other undercurrents of the film involves Little Edie’s needy flirtations with the younger David Maysles, her coquettish looks directly into the camera breaking down the filmmakers’ tenuous objectivity and turning the filmmakers gaze back on themselves.
Beyond her push-pull relationship with men, it’s not difficult to see how Little Edie’s constantly flowing interjections, overripe with camp bon mots (“I’m just pulverized by this latest thing,” “All I have to do is find this Libra man,” “S-T-A-U-N-C-H”), have attracted the devotion of gay audiences. Perhaps they recognize the power of monologue to deflect inquiries into the actual truth of the matter, the painful realities that spur alternate narratives. A strong point of comparison could be made between some of Little Edie’s most desperate moments and the drunken unraveling of the gay hustler in the spotlight of Shirley Clarke’s one-man Portrait of Jason. Both staunch characters interpolate performance into their lives to the point of dissociation. At least when there’s a camera around to catch their fall.
The Maysles and the Beales are equally culpable in giving the film its goon-show edge, which undoubtedly accounts for its pull on some audiences (critic Peter Keough astutely pinned the film’s tone somewhere between Ionesco and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). But they also captured one of the most compelling mother-daughter dyads ever seen on film. They’re co-dependent, but their humble existence conveys the full weight of generations passing unto the next; there but for the grace of God go them. And the Maysles wisely opted to not allow in any external, objective information about what truly happened to bring the Edies to their present state. Their account is what counts, and Grey Gardens remains one of the greatest and possibly only disaster movies that clearly benefits from not having seen the moments of reaping.