Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Yet More Stuff: Grey Gardens

Speaking of stuff...

We chose Grey Gardens the other night from our video on demand selection, and were much taken with superb performances by both Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

Not having seen the original 1975 documentary on which the film was based--the study of two frighteningly eccentric women, the aunt and first cousin (both Edith Bouvier Beales) of Jackie Kennedy Onassis--we were disturbed by the pathetic depths to which these recluses sank. What once had been a lovely home in the Hamptons turned, over the years, into a filthy hovel, overrun by raccoons and semi feral cats. As portrayed in the remake, this mutually destructive mother and daughter pair, once wealthy New York socialites, fancied themselves as misunderstood creative talents who had been denied the opportunities they felt they deserved as younger women and spent a lifetime immersed in pathological self-pity.

I have always found obsession to be at once fascinating and appaling. I have written a good deal about art collectors, over the years, whose obsession is most frequently a positive one. But I sometimes think that there is not that much difference between the multimillionaire who crams whole mansions and warehouses with art and the bag lady who accumulates her scavengings from the street and pushes them around in a shopping cart. The Bouvier women clearly never threw anything away, unless to add to the growing piles of garbage in their house. But I'm not sure that, in their case, it was the hoarder's instinct. I read recently about an Englishman who died amongst the mountains of trash in his own house, because he had closed off the last of his tunnels leading to the door and simply couldn't find the exit.

My sense from "Grey Gardens" is that the Bouvier women did not hold on to stuff for the same reasons--or out of the same madness--but because they couldn't be bothered to clean up or throw it out. Their life was such an illusion of grandeur that they were unable to see the revolting squalor in which they actually lived. Edie the elder clearly believed in herself as the grande dame, above the mundanities of little people, right up until the day she died. Edie the younger escaped from her psychic imprisonment for long enough, it seems, to realize the fantasy projection of herself in a cabaret performance which must have seemed like a mockery to those who saw it.

Let's not be too fast in pitying or mocking these lost souls. They would not be so disturbing if they did not hold the mirror up and offer us a look at our own obsessions and our own self-delusions. To paraphrase that most obsessive of novelists, Gustave Flaubert, "Edie Bouvier, c'est moi."

1 comment:

Nancy Youdelman said...

Hi Peter,
I think that it is important to see the original documentary "Grey Gardens" (1975). It is fascinating and horrific at the same time. And quite funny at times.

The younger Edie had quite an unusual fashion sense, wearing sweaters upside down and was creative with wrapping fabric and towels. I think that she may have had alopecia since her head is wrapped too.

I haven't seen the remake and have a hard time imagining Drew Barrymore as the younger Edie.

You can get the original from Netflix and there is also one that is "additional" footage. I actually watched that one first by mistake and was trying to make sense out it before realizing that it was not the documentary but the out-takes, etc.