The Cult of Grey Gardens

David Colman peels back the layers of one of camp's most iconic stories to uncover the film's strange heart and why it's still beating.




The musical's success also underscored just how mainstream camp has become. Since the Criterion Collection DVD release of the documentary in 2001, Grey Gardens and Little Edie are anything but recondite. In 2003 the movie was number 33 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the top 50 cult films. If the list were published today, Gardens would easily make the top 10. The Grey Gardens musical defied cynics to make it to Broadway, where it was a hot ticket and has spawned other major productions around the world. There are now Grey Gardens books, fan sites, Facebook pages, fashion lines, and homemade YouTube videos. In 2005 the original inspired what may have been the first documentary about a documentary, Ghosts of Grey Gardens , and in 2006, Albert Maysles released a sequel cobbled from outtake reels, The Beales of Grey Gardens . Kent Bartram, a Chicago writer and researcher, is writing an exhaustive biography of Little Edie, uncovering more of the story's strange complications and secrets, expected out in 2011. And Sucsy's film reveals more explicitly the dramatic narrative that lurks beneath the surface of the Maysles Brothers' films.

But the camp is also something of a red herring. As divine as a kooky cross between Diana Vreeland and Lee Radziwill sounds, Drew Barrymore herself will tell you that Little Edie is far more complex. "She has this brilliant fashion sense and these great lines -- I don't know a movie I quote more," Barrymore says. "But when you go deeper than that, what's there is a truly remarkable injured bird with the most amazing feathers."

Without the trappings of a single coherent narrative -- Little Edie would never be tied down to just one -- Grey Gardens is, in its mangled, tangled way, one of the clearest and most sophisticated expressions of gayness the world has created.

"Gay men think they're latching on to Grey Gardens because they think it's camp, but it's really because it's about a parent-child relationship," explains John Epperson, whose performance-art persona, Lypsinka, has turned the mimicry of movie-queen line readings into an art form of its own. "The best movies are always about identity, and that movie certainly is."

He draws a parallel to Imitation of Life , another gay favorite. The film is famous for Lana Turner's over-the-top acting and costumes, but it's the supporting story of the black maid and her daughter, Sarah Jane -- who can pass for white and tragically tries to -- that really resonates with gay viewers, Epperson says. Sarah Jane is like a gay man in that she's trying to find a place in the world where she fits.

Sucsy says he wasn't trying to place his Grey Gardens film within the context of the old-school Hollywood women's pictures; it just turned out that way.

"I remember, it wasn't that long ago, I was just catching up on my classics, and I rented Now, Voyager ," he says. "It didn't have anything to do with [my work on Grey Gardens ]. I started watching it, and I just thought, Oh, my God, the way the two overlap is eerie ."

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