When Bette Davis serves Joan Crawford a boiled rat in the '60s shocker/camp fest Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? we can only titter at the sheer, over-the-top horribleness of it. Jane and Blanche, the two weird sisters at the film's heart, were once nationally acclaimed young starlets. Now they are embittered, grotesque hags cooped up in their crumbling estate with nothing to sustain them but mutual hatred and resentment. Jane and Blanche do what all classic movie monsters have done, from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein golem to Willem Dafoe's Count Orlock in the recent Shadow of the Vampire: they horrify us, they amuse us, and they move us to pity—sometimes even managing all three at the same time. And watching the overpainted, banshee mugs of Davis and Crawford in Baby Jane, we are free to feel as horrified, amused or sympathetic as we like, safe from even a smidgen of guilt as we peer into these ruined lives. These monsters, after all, are no more real than the monsters you imagined under your bed when you were a kid. Dreamed up by an inspired Hollywood hack, given life by two respected actresses, Jane and Blanche are, thank heavens, entirely fictional.
But would Jane and Blanche's antics be so nastily delightful if they were real people starring in a documentary? Would it be proper for us to sit back and watch two real aged madwomen spit venom at each other for a couple of hours? For a person of any sensitivity whatsoever, these questions shadow the groundbreaking 1975 film Grey Gardens, screening this week as part of UC Irvine's latest film series, Eccentrics and Iconoclasts—Portraits of Life. While there's plenty to differentiate the fictional lives of Jane and Blanche from the actual lives of Edith Bouvier Beale (or "Big Edie") and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale Jr. (or "Little Edie"), the two pairs also have too much in common.
Big Edie was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' aunt and a popular, beautiful singer in her youth. Big Edie's daughter, Little Edie, was Jackie O's cousin and once an up-and-coming actress and stunner in her own right. They were American royalty, but as the documentary begins, the Beale women have fallen far indeed, transformed into hateful shrews who have lived together in their crumbling mansion for far too many years. They've just been cited by health inspectors for their filthy living conditions (too predictably, there were dozens of cats on the premises), and they spend their days in a battle of wills, endlessly tearing each other apart. Only a certain grace of bearing marks them as the glittering socialites they once were; they're a matched set of Daisy Buchanans gone to seed.
David and Albert Maysles were documentary filmmakers who pioneered direct cinema, a non-intrusive style in which the subject took center stage and the editorial presence was all but invisible. Grey Gardens is one of their most acclaimed pictures—and deservedly so. It's a landmark work of documentary filmmaking. It's also creepy as all get-out. There is a fine line between journalism and exploitation, and it's sometimes difficult to say which side of that line this picture lands on. The Beales were natural performers (and drama queens) who welcomed the Maysles' cameras into their home, and if the women were of unquestionably sound mind, I'd say they were free to expose their foibles any way they saw fit. Unfortunately, both women are just nutty enough that things get very dodgy. As Little Edie flits about in a turban, attempting to flirt with the cameraman and using binoculars to read a bathroom scale, we have to wonder if the woman really comprehended the ghastly impression her performance would leave on viewers.
Grey Gardens (the name of the Beales' estate) is a nightmarish place to visit, but once you're there, it's impossible to tear yourself away, fascinated as you are by the twisted little psychodrama playing out within these dusty halls. Perhaps the saddest fact of all is that Big Edie lived for two more miserable years after the film was made; when she died, we can only hope the poor old creature went to a better place. Actually, any place would have been better than the hell she'd just left. At this writing, Little Edie lives on, presumably happier now than she was when she was forced to care for the mother she detested. Dead or alive, both women at least seem to have been granted the happy ending that eluded Jane and Blanche.
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Grey Gardens screens at the UC Irvine Student Center, Crystal Cove Auditorium, Campus & W. Peltason drives, Irvine, (949) 824-5588; www.filmsociety.uci.edu. Fri., 7 & 9 p.m. $3-$5.