The first that many Americans heard of Edie Windsor is when the 83-year-old spitfire's discrimination case, Windsor vs. United States, came before the Supreme Court last month. But, she's no stranger to film lovers and LGBT activists: The 2009 documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement —which chronicles her 40-year engagement to her wife, the late Thea Spyer — won 21 audience and jury awards on the festival circuit and continued to garner fans when it was released on DVD in 2010.
Directed by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir (who also made the sad but riveting doc The Brandon Teena Story), Edie & Thea follows the development of Edie and Thea's relationship from the closeted 1960s through their decades of adventures and world travels, creating a portrait of a life that was what reviewer Brian Orndorf called "a sensation of romantic flight before medical realities grounded the couple."
After Spyer starts experiencing multiple sclerosis, her mobility is affected but the couple's love never is, and her last flight takes her and Windsor to Toronto, where they finally legally tie the knot. The film, still available on DVD from Breaking Glass, changed not only Edie's public profile but also the lives of viewers and the filmmakers.
"In Washington on [March 27]," recalls Olafsdottir, "I met an older woman who was waiting on line to get into the Supreme Court for Edie's case. She told me that she was there because she had seen our documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement and has been following Edie's case since then. She had also lost her longtime partner just few months ago. When she found out that I was one of the directors for the film, she burst into tears and thanked me profoundly. It's responses like this that makes you very happy about what you do and the stories you tell as a documentary director and producer."
Muska concurs "The film has had a tremendous impact on all of our lives — it debuted in 2009, and we, along with the film, were immediately drawn into the marriage equality movement," she says. "We're really proud that we are able to contribute strength to the movement in this way."
The filmmakers say the documentary has "become a kind of international emissary for marriage equality," and it's been shown in many places to increase awareness, such as Bosnia, Slovakia, Lithuania, and more.
"On a more personal level," says Muska, "people often write to us and tell us that their mother or father or aunt or siblings have watched the film and it changed their view on gay marriage. One guy told us at a screening that 'I didn't know lesbians could be like this.' A friend's teenage son told us, 'I hope I find love like this one day.' And we even cut in Italian subtitles for an Italian woman's future mother-in-law, who ended up writing to us praising the film and the insight it offered her about her daughter's marriage."
Celebrities got in the game too. Rosie O'Donnell praised Edie & Thea, calling it "an amazingly beautiful film that speaks of love, commitment, equality, survival, and even death," while author and historian Leslie Schwalm took away a central message of it. saying, "Great advice for lifelong lovers: dancing and sex!"
See moving images of Windsor and Spyer from the film and their nearly 50-year-long relationship on the following pages.
Watch the trailer for Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement below.
Thea (left) and Edie at the shore in 1969.
The duo at Grossinger's resort years later.
Already a fashion plate, Edie Windsor at Columbia University in the '60s.
Young and in love in the Hamptons, August 1969.
September 1969 in the Hamptons.
At a party years later than the Hamptons vacations.
By the pool at home in 1979. Thea was already dealing with symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
It wasn't legal but it sure was fun: Just married in 1981.
Still hot to trot, the couple continued dancing even after Thea began using a wheelchair full-time.
The couple were marriage equality activists even in Thea's final days.