On Discovering the Glory that is Gray Gardens

March 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

edie america

A few days ago I read an article on Gawker discussing this season’s Snatch Game on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “This is the Best-Ever Impression of Little Edie Bouvier Beale,” the headline read. I did not know who that was, so didn’t get much out of the clip. But I was curious — apparently Little Edie Bouvier Beale is a cult icon, and cult icons are far and above the best kind of icons. Plus I am in the process of transitioning away from purely internetty research (I am in the early phases of a new book project that examines ambiguous or otherwise antagonistic fan engagement), so this sort of film –which was released in 1976– is relevant to those shifting interests.

First, some background: Gray Gardens is a reality television show 25 years before its time, and could loosely be described as the Down and Out Housewives of East Hampton. It stars the destitute, hoarder cousins of Jackie Kennedy who live in a decrepit mansion smack in the heart of billionaire alley, and who spend their days talking about better days and wading through trash. Apparently the occupants of the eponymous estate –a mother and daughter duo named Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, respectively– let their house fall into such disrepair that the health department nearly condemned the property in 1972, resulting in a flurry of media coverage. Concerned (and no doubt somewhat embarrassed) for her kin, Jackie Kennedy swooped in with a pillbox hat filled with gold doubloons and helped bring the house up to code. Though the house was saved, the Bouvier Beales continued to live in relative squalor, eventually attracting a film crew interested in capturing what happens when Kennedys stop getting paid, and start hoarding cats.

They had me at “Jackie Kennedy’s destitute cousins,” so that night Chris and I watched, mouthes agape, as Little Edie –who developed alopecia while living at Gray Gardens due to the stress of caring for her mother and not having a Libra husband— danced and sang and talked and talked, often while her mother Big Edie looked on in half disgust, half amusement (for a list of memorable quotes, go here).

Below is the film in its entirety; to really get a sense of the ART that is Big and Little Edie, watch 23:29-26:50 in which mother and daughter listen to Norman Vincent Peale’s radio sermon. The part with the shoes (25:30-25:57) is simply breathtaking. Every bit as breathtaking is the conversation between mother and daughter about love and marriage from 59:01-1:00:56, particularly Big Edie’s trollface about the uselessness of husbands (“I’ll take a dog any day”) at 59:28.

So, this is my new favorite thing. In addition to being my new favorite thing, it is also tickling at the theory part of my brain. Because there is something so familiar about the tone of this film, something so recognizable and yet (seemingly) so ineffable. Which is a cop-out; it’s not that it’s ineffable, it’s that I’m not quite sure how to describe it just yet. Something along the lines of proto-TLC with a better (meaner?) sense of humor. Whatever it is –Camp, obviously, but coupled with something a bit heavier– it is present in many of the televisual shitshows at whose altar I worship, and that is something to think more carefully about.

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