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.

BY David Colman

March 04 2009 1:00 AM ET

1025 GREY GARDENS DREW BARRYMORE X LARGE (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

And the similarities don't end with Bette Davis's Now, Voyager . What's surprising is how many other haunting mother-daughter stories there are in the gay cult canon: Stella Dallas , Mildred Pierce , Gypsy , Carrie , Female Trouble , Postcards From the Edge . Throw in the house mothers of Paris Is Burning too. Even films like Baby Jane and All About Eve (not to mention Showgirls ) are power struggles between two women trapped in a world somewhat of their own making, echoing the mother-daughter push-pull.

"There's a certain kind of identification with this mother and daughter who are locked together," says Charles Busch, the playwright and performer whose play Die, Mommie, Die! -- later made into a film -- was a send-up of 1960s gay cult hits like Dead Ringer and Strait-Jacket . "Until recently, gay people, since they didn't get married and didn't have kids, often had unusually intense relationships with their parents. I was raised by my aunt, who during her last years was an invalid. I'd be making her lunch and she'd start in with the bell. I felt just like Baby Jane."

The Edie resonance goes even deeper than that, Sucsy says. While researching, he was struck by how closely Edie's status during her time in New York -- young, single, and "bohemian" -- corresponded to that of gay men at the time. In his film, which alternates between re-created scenes of the filming of the '75 documentary and flashbacks of the Edies' lives through the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, Little Edie is always longing to get away. First she evades her father's desire for her to settle down and marry a nice rich WASP, and later she escapes Grey Gardens altogether.

Flamboyant, witty, and childlike -- traits that for years were ascribed, accurately or not, to gay men -- she tries and tries but, despite her enthusiasm, can't make her way in New York City. She runs out on her social debut in the 1930s, has trouble holding a job in the 1940s, and embarks on an affair with a married man in the early 1950s.

"Part of [our attraction] is generational," says Doug Wright, who wrote I Am My Own Wife and the book for the Grey Gardens musical. "In a closeted culture, there were no public figures who identified as gay. So many gay men came to see themselves in these high-functioning, artistically expressive, heartbreakingly single, and deeply neurotic women. That world undervalued [Edie's] extravagant expressiveness, and she couldn't find love in any successful way. If that doesn't describe your average gay man, circa 1950, I don't know what does. Our stories were closer to Stella Dallas than John Wayne."

Even so, if you think it's strange that gays should gravitate toward two women whom most people would call insane, remember this: It was only in 1973 -- around when David and Albert Maysles were first knocking on the Edies' front door -- that the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as mental illness. Little more than a decade earlier, films like Suddenly, Last Summer ; The Manchurian Candidate ; and, most famously, Psycho were all painting portraits of weak but dangerous young men with troubling attachments to a forceful mother. Gay men and women today may identify with racial minorities, but for most of the past century, gays were lumped in with crazies, alkies, spinsters, and eccentrics -- they all ate at the same unmentionable table, preferably hidden.

Barrymore, who comes from a famous family herself and whose own wild-child behavior has resulted in a headline or two, can relate -- but mostly to the Edies' love-hate filial relationship.

"In my experience the term apron strings doesn't even begin to cut it," she says. "There's an insane amount of pain and guilt with mother-daughter relationships, and some people are eaten alive by it. It's a really interesting dynamic."

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