The Cult of Grey Gardens

By David Colman

Originally published on Advocate.com March 04 2009 1:00 AM ET

Like most of the best things in life -- opera, wine, meditation, anal sex -- the weird world of Grey Gardens is an acquired taste. And as with many acquired tastes, the first sip makes quite an impression. When I first saw the film in college, my reactions were shock and dismay at what felt like exploitative invasion of privacy, a mockery of two sadly deranged women.

"I tell people, 'You may not like it the first time,'È‚f;" explains Michael Sucsy about the 1975 Maysles Brothers documentary. Over the past few years, Sucsy has researched, written, and directed a new dramatic film, also titled Grey Gardens , starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the mother and daughter who shared an East Hampton, N.Y., house (Grey Gardens) and a name (Edith Bouvier Beale) for about 25 years too long. In the process of creating the film, which premieres April 18 on HBO, he got used to people reading his script (or seeing a rough cut of the film) and saying they now wanted to see the Maysles version. In each of these instances, Sucsy, who had the same reaction I did when he first saw the '75 documentary, warned everyone that they might be disappointed -- at first.

It takes repeated viewings of the film to truly understand why it's become, as University of Sussex film professor John David Rhodes describes it, a "rite of passage for gay men." (Rhodes remembers how in 1992, on his first night in New York, his gay uncle took him to Kim's Video on Bleecker Street to get the tape.) Spotting the camp beneath the train wreck is crucial to honing the camp sensibility that's as much a part of the urban gay man's development as big biceps-augmenting the movie-queen Grand Guignol curriculum of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest .

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"It was one of the films that all of us quoted to each other," Rhodes says. "It served as a kind of recondite, East Village version of camp, classical Hollywood."

Still, you don't need a degree in queer theory to see the attractions: Little Edie's famous, madcap approach to wardrobe; her equally hilarious flair for conversation, in which, like her clothing, she melds the utterly practical and sublimely absurd; and the fact that she was Jackie Kennedy's first cousin. What gay man wouldn't identify with someone who wore outlandish outfits, starred in her own movie, and was related to (and prettier than) Jackie? "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" -- Edie's highly hummable fashion manifesto from the 2006 Grey Gardens Broadway musical -- packed all three of these, Little Edie's biggest charms, into one big bring-down-the-house number that leapt into the camp hall of fame right next to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "I'm the Greatest Star."

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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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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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Barrymore was also drawn to Little Edie's freewheeling way of saying one thing and then coming back with the completely opposite point of view. This fast-twirling yin-yang of contradictions is something most people might attempt to hide behind a cool and composed facade. Not Edie.

"I remember meeting with a studio executive once who said, 'Look, I read your script, and frankly, this is full of contradictions,'È‚f;" Sucsy says. "That's one of the things that was so amazing about Drew -- how she was excited by that. She really understood."

The most frequent (and poignant) of the contradictions is Little Edie's wish to be married versus her desire to remain single and free. While superficially opposite, both betray the loneliness Edie felt as well as her sad suspicion that she was inherently too flawed to be loved.

The theme of contradiction is echoed in the house itself. Although broken-down and decrepit, Grey Gardens is right there in glamorous East Hampton, the cream of America's summer resorts, less than 200 yards from one of the nation's most desirable beaches. In many ways, gay people live that close to the country's culture and may even go to that beach; but we are, in other ways, still as far away as Little Edie was.

For all the heartbreak, though, the growing cult around Grey Gardens seldom dwells on the down spots, and the new film ends on a sweetly high note. Young gay men today are less likely to sing along to the bittersweet strains of "I Will Survive." Today's camp icons are characters like Cher Horowitz from Clueless , Elle Woods of Legally Blonde , and the gals from Sex and the City . So while there may not be much for them in the mother-daughter melodramas of yesterday, there's plenty for fashion-besotted 20-somethings to be had in Little Edie and her take on style.

And that style, Barrymore explains, has a mystery all its own. "Cat and I would have to freeze-frame [the documentary] to figure out how [Little Edie] pinned things," she says, referring to the film's costume designer, Catherine Marie Thomas. "One time, it took us forever to figure what she'd done. It was two shirts, one worn as a shirt and one worn as a skirt -- with the arms wrapped around for a belt. These were extremely theatrical people. Life was a stage."

Robb Brawn, custodian of the fan site MyGreyGardens.com , agrees that Little Edie's fashion sense was far from superficial. The two of them became friends in 1979, after Big Edie had died, Grey Gardens had been sold, and Little Edie moved to New York City to launch her long-dreamed-of, short-lived cabaret career. (She gave 16 performances at Reno Sweeney in the West Village.)

"To me, Edie's thing wasn't just that it's OK to be different -- and this was the 1970s, when it wasn't OK," Brawn says. "She was saying, 'I'm not just here to be accepted, I want to be celebrated.' They were happy in their own skin, she and Big Edie, being who they were, and that's what a lot of gay people relate to. We shouldn't have to explain why we're here or be tolerated or accepted. We're not all as philosophical as Edie, but we feel that way."

So why settle for Gloria, Mae, Joan, Bette, Judy, Rita, Katharine, Marilyn, Lana, Barbra, Faye, Liza, Sissy, Jessica, Meryl, or Madonna? Edie is all of them, stripped down to one sparkling, hilarious talent yearning to be loved and applauded.

And brimming over, as she always is, with the fervent hope that tomorrow will be different and with the nagging fear that it won't be, she is also, so clearly, all of us.