Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Grey Gardens

During Rufus Wainwright’s show last week at City Winery in Chicago (a great show as always, though far too short), he played the song “Grey Gardens” from his second studio album, Poses.  The performance inspired me to revisit the song, and I’d forgotten that it begins with the following line of movie dialogue:

“It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, you know what I mean?”

I probably first heard this line around thirteen years ago, but apparently lacked the curiosity to actually look up its origins until last week.  Many of you may already know the details, but for me it was news; turns out the dialogue comes from a film called – surprise – “Grey Gardens,” a voyeuristic 1975 documentary about Edith and Edie Beale, the respective aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who in the 60s and 70s lived a reclusive life in the decaying mansion of Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York.  A few years prior to the film, the Beales were very close to being evicted due to health code violations until Mrs. Onassis came to the rescue by investing $32K to get the home back up to code.  It could be argued that it wasn’t money well spent; the film shows the mother and daughter living among cats who relieve themselves anywhere they please, papers and food scraps scattered everywhere, and open holes in the plaster through which raccoons and other animals enter (mostly because the younger Beale proactively feeds them).  It’s certainly an interesting film and one that achieved a cult following over the decades, though it’s not for all tastes, and the movie sheds little light on what made these two women decide to live largely cut off from the outside to begin with. 

Luckily, while searching for the documentary (which can be rented on Amazon for $2.99), I found another movie with the same title, a fictionalized version of the Edith and Edie Beale story starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore that first appeared on HBO in 2009 (and can also be rented on Amazon).  This film is outstanding, with pitch-perfect performances by the two leads.  In addition to giving the viewer a (fictionalized) glimpse of what the lives of the Beales may have been like prior to their fall from grace, it meticulously reproduces many of the more poignant scenes of the documentary.  It won three of seventeen Emmy nominations and two of three Golden Globe nominations.

The allure of watching previously wealthy eccentrics living in the shadow of missed opportunities must be somewhat universal, for the Beales's story was even captured in a successful musical, first off-Broadway and then on Broadway itself in 2006, winning three of its ten Tony nominations in 2007 and running for 307 performances. 

So in a nutshell: I learned a great deal and watched two interesting movies all due to a song - yet another example of how music can enlighten our lives.  Thanks Rufus.

If you’re interested in learning a thing or two about Little Edie and Big Edie Beale, a good place to start might be the Grey Gardens website.

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