OUT OF ALL the thousands of films I have watched as a student, critic, or university instructor, undoubtedly one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had was sitting through a 25th anniversary screening of Grey Gardens at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000. Perhaps one of the best ways I could describe it was as a frisson—a moment so fraught with emotional tension that I can still recall the perspiration that soaked my hands as I took it in.
The 1975 documentary was made by the fraternal filmmaking team of David and Albert Maysles, who had previously created such landmark films as Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), which became notorious for having captured the stabbing murder of a Rolling Stones fan at their ill-fated Altamont (California) concert. In the early 70’s, the Maysles set out to make a documentary about the extended family of former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. But when they reached the dilapidated East Hampton mansion called Grey Gardens, they knew that they needed to go no further. There they found the aunt and cousin of the former first lady, a mother and daughter—Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier, respectively—who appeared stuck in another era, clinging to their aristocratic past while feeding a small army of cats and raccoons in a house that was literally falling apart. Gaining the trust of Big Edie (then almost eighty) and Little Edie (56), they filmed at Grey Gardens for several weeks, then artfully edited their footage, crafting an exquisite feature.