Staunch Characters and Not-So-Fine Dining: Food and the Direct Cinema of Grey Gardens

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too, in life.” 

“Oh, yes, I did. I did, I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.” – “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” Beale

The food in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles) is strikingly unremarkable, which makes it utterly remarkable. Canned meats, crackers, and boiled corn aren’t particularly appetizing, but it’s a diet that reflects the situation of the film’s real-life subjects, a pair of former socialites fallen from grace and living in squalor in their decaying family estate. Special occasions are toasted with wine in paper cups, flies buzz around half-eaten food and wrappings left on various pieces of old furniture, and in one of the most memorable images, a woman piles dry cat food and Wonder Bread on a newspaper at her stockinged feet for the cats and raccoons that have overrun her home.

Following her separation from her husband, Edith Ewing Bouvier “Big Edie” Beale lived with her adult daughter, Edith Bouvier “Little Edie” Beale, at the titular Grey Gardens estate in East Hampton, New York until the former’s death in 1977. Limited funds resulted in the house falling into disrepair, with an unkempt yard, no running water, and an abundance of stray animals wandering the premises. Their cousins, former US First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis (née Bouvier) and her sister, Lee Radziwill, provided enough funds to get the house up to code and prevent it from being razed. The Maysles brothers took interest in the Beales while working on a documentary about Radziwill that was ultimately shelved (Webb, “It’s All in the Film”). 

The Maysles’ direct cinema approach (notable in previous film credits, the 1969 documentary Salesman and the 1970 Rolling Stones concert documentary Gimme Shelter) lends itself perfectly to the eccentric Beale women, who have a tendency to overshare to the point of baring it all, sometimes literally. Big Edie lounges half-naked around the house while sunbathing on the terrace, while Little Edie namedrops all of the wealthy and famous men she could have married. Their relation to the Bouvier-Kennedy family and the spectacle of their living conditions also made them minor celebrities. My introduction to Grey Gardens was Jinkx Monsoon’s spot-on impression of Little Edie in an otherwise lacklustre “Snatch Game” on the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, complete with her breathy New York accent, iconic headscarf, and handheld magnifying glass in lieu of reading glasses. I didn’t know who Little Edie was at the time, but I knew Jinkx was wiping the floor with everyone else from the moment she held up a tin can and proclaimed that the label was so faded she couldn’t tell if it was “pâté or giblets for the cats”.

The Beales did seem to have extraordinary lives, having lived through both world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of their politically ambitious in-laws, and their own fall from wealth and social standing, but there’s a lot to their story that I found myself relating to. Their conversations about regrets and missed opportunities, interspersed with petty squabbling, aren’t that different from spats I get into with my own mother. Grey Gardens is also oddly predictive of pandemic life, especially Little Edie bemoaning life in isolation (her declaration that she “hasn’t been out of this damn horrible place in two years” sure hits different on Year Two of the COVID-19 global pandemic). Big Edie notes that the price of food is going up, she and Little Edie reminisce on a simpler past, and they even have their groceries delivered to the house.

Food really starts to come into focus around halfway through the documentary, and the Beales’ contentious relationship with their house, their guests, and each other is often revealed by what they eat and how they offer food to others. Among their regular guests are the aforementioned cats and raccoons, who get dry cat food and Wonder Bread from Little Edie. The Maysles brothers are offered liver pâté on crackers while filming Little Edie trying to feed her mother the same thing. The young handyman of Grey Gardens, Jerry, gets a mixed reception from the Beales: Little Edie affectionately nicknames him in one breath (“The Marble Faun”, after the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel), and accuses him of stealing in the next, but Big Edie simply offers him boiled corn, which he gladly accepts.

The Beales also use food to voice their displeasure with their current circumstances. Little Edie frets over her weight gain, which Big Edie attributes to stress eating ice cream while stuck at Grey Gardens. Concerns about weight and body image are, unfortunately, often handed down from mother to daughter, but nevertheless, they’re later shown eating ice cream together. When they invite two friends over to celebrate Big Edie’s birthday, she’s initially displeased by the simplicity of being served wine in a paper cup, but does a complete 180 when she sees her beautifully decorated cake with icing flowers. This seems to connect to an earlier conversation between Big Edie and Little Edie about having one’s cake and eating it too; they cannot have an opulent lifestyle at Grey Gardens, but they can enjoy the little things.

When watching Grey Gardens, I often wonder why Big Edie and Little Edie never tried to sell the house, or why their family didn’t make a greater effort to help them, and some view the documentary as exploitative. I haven’t done too much digging on what went on behind the scenes, though for what it’s worth, I did learn that Big Edie allegedly told Little Edie in her final years, “There’s nothing more to say. It’s all in the film.” (Webb). To me, Grey Gardens is no more exploitative than most reality TV, and perhaps even far more authentic. In the interconnected reality TV universe of, say, the salad-shaking, Nobu-dining Kardashians, the camera crew are barely acknowledged aside from separately filmed confessionals, almost creating a feeling of artifice; there’s a common complaint that all reality TV is actually scripted. There’s something much more real about Grey Gardens, even with the Beales constantly acknowledging the presence of the filmmakers, talking to them directly and offering them food. They’re always performing, especially when Big Edie and Little Edie showcase their talents from their respective short-lived singing and dancing careers. The Maysles even reveal themselves and their filming equipment as they walk past mirrors. It feels very open, honest, and familiar, like a continuous conversation, or being entertained in someone’s home.

What I think Grey Gardens boils down to is that Big Edie and Little Edie were extremely resilient people, for better or for worse. Little Edie refers to herself as a “staunch character” (“S-T-A-U-N-C-H”), and perhaps the crux of the Beales’ problem is that they’re loyal to a fault—to their house, to each other—and unwilling to change. Still, even in their unhappiness, they find moments of levity and whimsy. They sing songs and dance, find things to joke about and continue to nurture each other and their house (decorating it even in its decay, feeding the creatures that inhabit it). They open themselves up to all who enter even with what little they have left.

Works Cited

Webb, Ralf. “It’s All In The Film: Direct Cinema, ‘Grey Gardens’, and ‘That Summer’.” The White Review, Sep 2018, https://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/film-direct-cinema-grey-gardens-summer/

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