Refuting the Critics: The Maysles’ Ethics and the Beale’s Self-Expression in Grey Gardens

a woman in a fur coat standing in front of a dilapidated house
Photo by Herb Goro on Wikimedia Commons

Grey Gardens, a direct cinema documentary film released in 1975, chronicles the daily lives of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, the aunt and cousin of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Born into wealth, these two women were abandoned by their families and lived alone in Grey Gardens, a decaying fourteen-room mansion in Long Island, New York. Upon Edith’s divorce with her husband Phelan Beale, the mother and daughter received minimal financial support from Phelan and the Bouvier family. In the early 1970s, the county health department declared the house uninhabitable due to its unsanitary conditions and threatened to evict the Beales. Furthermore, their close relation to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led to sensationalized coverage of their circumstances by media outlets such as the New York Post (Grey Gardens 1:45–2:56). Albert and David Maysles became intrigued by Edith and Edie’s story while working on a film about the Bouvier family, which was commissioned and then abandoned by Lee Radziwell, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, niece of Edith Beale, and cousin of Edie Beale. After negotiating with the Beales, Albert and David Maysles paid each of the women $5,000 dollars for participating in the documentary and offered them twenty percent of all future profits (Tinkcom 90). The film is a collective effort of the Maysles, the Beales, and three female film editors. Later, selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, the film was recognized for its influence on the documentary film genre; however, it is ongoing critical dialogue about the ethical dimensions of the film that cements its place in cinematic history.

Despite its accolades, the film also faced sharp criticism. Following the on-screen murder of eighteen-year-old African American Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in the rockumentary Gimme Shelter, film critics questioned the ethics of the Maysles’ direct cinema approach to making documentaries. The New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael concluded her review for Gimme Shelter with the sentence: “Altamont, in Gimme Shelter, is like a Roman circus, with a difference: the audience and the victims are indistinguishable” (253). Grey Gardens, which was released after Gimme Shelter, faced similar accusations from critics who claimed the film was exploitative and the subjects featured in the film were victims of Albert Maysles’ merciless camera. Film critic Molly Haskell dismissed “the Beales as ‘travesties of women’ and found the film to be ‘an ethical and aesthetic abomination’” (qtd. in McElhaney 95). New York Times film critic and Pulitzer Prize finalist Walter Goodman not only called Albert Maysles’ camera “merciless,” but also advocated for widespread “disgust at the [Maysles] brothers” (16). Critics also disapproved of Edie’s presence at screenings of the documentary. In his review, the writer and director Michael Tolkin accused the Maysles of dragging Edie “around like a trained seal with a half a lobotomy” (140). Tolkin’s claim is not only an ableist ad hominem attack on Edie, but also an accusation that the Maysles were exploiting her for publicity and profit. I find these critic’s assertions problematic, and in this essay I defend the film by foregrounding the acts of self-expression and agency I perceive the Beale women displaying in Grey Gardens.

Some critics claimed that filming Grey Gardens amounted to an invasion of privacy. However, Edith and Edie were never afraid of revealing aspects of themselves in front of a camera, given that both women were performing artists. In her 1976 interview with Kathryn Goodhart Graham, a writer for Interview magazine, Little Edie claims that the only thing she wishes the Maysles brothers would have done better was to include more footage of her dancing and her “mother wanted more of her songs sung or her records played . . . That’s really the only thing we live for” (Graham 4:25–4:41). Without the presence of the Maysles brothers, Edith and Edie were isolated within their home and their only audience was each other. The Maysles, and their single camera and microphone, provided an impromptu stage for the Beale women to express themselves freely, through their singing, dancing, costumes, conversations, or silence. As Jonathan Vogels, a film studies scholar, mentioned in his chapter about Grey Gardens: “[s]he [Edie] recognizes the limitations of the camera/visitor but nevertheless values its perspective. At least it pays attention—and accepts her unconditionally” (137). Although the filmmakers did not liberate the women from the cage of their diminishing gentry, due to the film’s lack of commercial success, the Maysles did invite the women to share their lives without judgment. Rather than criticizing the Maysles for depicting the Beales in sensationalistic ways, viewers should consider the film as a vehicle for the mother and daughter pair to express aspects of themselves that otherwise would not have reached a wider audience. The genre conventions of direct cinema constrained the filmmakers from staging anything in the documentary. Throughout the film, viewers repeatedly see the Beales share family photo albums or ask the filmmakers questions such as “Do you want to go up and photograph it from the top porch?” (Grey Gardens 3:55–4:00). The Beale women took initiative in this film and to some extent they co-directed their autobiography with the Maysles. The film, while it does not shy away from the Beale’s eccentricities, is an honest depiction of the Beale’s lives, abilities, and talent.

In response to assertions, such as Walter Goodman’s—who charged that the women were mentally unfit to consent to the Maysles’ film—one of the film’s three female editors, Ellen Hovde, retorted to interviewer Alan Rosenthal that “[n]o one tried to institutionalize them, and it is presumptuous to make decisions for other people about what they do or do not understand” (Rosenthal and Hovde 14). Yet, nonetheless Goodman’s criticism of the film framed the Beale women as incompetent and easily manipulated to reveal private aspects of their lives. If one takes a closer look at the film, Goodman’s ostensible concern for the Beale’s privacy rings false. Edith had a successful music career, though her performances were limited to privately made recordings, parties, and family gatherings. In the documentary, we see how easy it was for Edith to recite songs and lyrics from memory. When Edith has conversations with her daughter, Edie, she is philosophical: “You are in this world. You know? You are not out of the world” (Grey Gardens 7:51–7:53). In the film, we also witness a discussion between Edie and the filmmakers of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun (Grey Gardens 10:23–11:44). When discussing her educational background, Little Edie recalled studying “English literature and Oriental philosophy. I can read and write in French, but I can’t speak French” (Grey Gardens 29:30–29:53). The Beale women might not engage in intellectual conversations at the same level as the movie critics who dismiss them for not possessing the cognitive resources to consent to be filmed, but labelling these women as incompetent is not supportable by the evidence.

At the beginning of the film, we see Edie welcoming the Maysles into her house and introducing her outfit. “This is the best thing to wear for the day. . . I have to think these things up. You know?” (Grey Gardens 3:22–3:41). Edie is prepared for the camera. Media studies and film scholars David Adair and Annita Boyd examine Edie’s personal expression and agency through her choice of clothes to wear in the film. Adair and Boyd argue that Edie put thought and effort into making the most fashionable outfit out of a shrinking wardrobe. Through her bold yet creative fashion choices, we see a strong and capable woman taking the lead. “It is not so surprising that accusations of mental instability were leveled against Edie, as is often the case when society is confronted with unruly women” (Adair and Boyd 40). Edie’s quirky outfits are connected to her lack of means to purchase new clothes, yet her choices are imaginative and they provide a way for her to express herself and to showcase her sense of style in spite of her limited choices.

Some scholars and writers concur that Maysles’ Grey Gardens is not exploitative of the Beale women. For example, Matthew Abbott, a philosopher of aesthetics and ethics, articulates that the Maysles treated the Beales fairly through “letting them reveal themselves” and “refusing to judge” them “in a moralistic or otherwise prejudiced way” (120). Even Michael Tolkin, who resorted to an ad hominem attack on Edie’s presence at screenings to promote the film, conceded at the end of his review of the film that “the Maysles are honest, and that their films are art” (141). Marjorie Rosen, a journalism professor, opines that some male critics were upset by the “toughness of these dotty women, about the aggression and spirit they’ve preserved while surviving, even savoring, their self-created manless world” (29). I agree with Rosen that it is unsurprising to see the agency the Beale women display resulting in anti-feminist backlash from reviewers and critics. It is also no surprise to see the Beales lambasted as “travesties of women” by a film critic when we consider gendered norms and the women’s “resistance to the strict norms of good housekeeping” (Rhodes 87). Nonetheless, it is reassuring to not be a lone voice in the sense that other thinkers also recognize the Beale’s staunch desire to live on their own terms and the Maysles’ approach to documenting their lives as fairly and evenhandedly.

In Grey Gardens the Maysles and their editorial team present the Beale women through the lens of their achievements and their struggles to maintain independence, in spite of their increasingly dire material circumstances and aging bodies. All three editors of the Maysles’ film were women and as film editor Ellen Hovde emphasizes, the Beale women “were the ones who really defended the film more than anyone” (Rosenthal and Hovde 14). Edith and Edie Beale wanted the Maysles to share their stories and talents with the world, rather than limiting their reach to those who visited them in their decaying mansion. The critics made prejudiced assumptions when they claimed the film was exploitative, embarrassing, or indecent because Edith, for example, has “flesh hanging off her arm” (Rosenthal and Hovde 17). The Maysles’ documentary portrayed the Beale women as they actually looked, without judgment or pity, which is why the film is an aesthetic and ethical achievement worthy of continued attention and discussion from viewers and critics in the present and future.

Works Cited

Abbott, Matthew. “Grey Gardens and the Problem of Objectivity: Notes on the Ethics of

Observational Documentary.” Projections: The Journal of Movies and Mind 13.2 (2019): pp. 108–122.

Adair, David, and Annita Boyd. "Returns from the margins: Little Edie Beale and the Legacy of

Grey Gardens.” Film, Fashion & Consumption 2.1 (2013): pp. 25–42.

Goodman, Walter. “‘Grey Gardens’: Cinema Verite or Sideshow?” New York Times (February

22, 1976): pp. 15–16.

Graham, Kathryn Goodhart. “Grey Gardens: Audio interview by Kathryn G. Graham with Little

Edie Bouvier Beale from Interview magazine.” Criterion Collection, 1976.

Grey Gardens. Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, and Susan Froemke. Janus Films, 1976.

Kael, Pauline. “Gimme Shelter: Review.” Eds. Mark Cousins and Kevin MacDonald. Imagining

Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. Faber & Faber, 1996, pp. 249–282.

McElhaney, Joe. Albert Maysles. U. of Illinois Press, 2009.

Rhodes, John David. “‘Concentrated Ground’: Grey Gardens and the Cinema of the Domestic.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 47.1 (2006): pp. 83–105.

Rosenthal, Alan and Ellen Hovde. “Ellen Hovde: An Interview.” Film Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2,

1978, pp. 8–17.

Tinkcom, Matthew. Grey Gardens. London: BFI Publishing, 2011.

Tolkin, Michael. “What Makes the Maysles Run?: The Men who Made Grey Gardens.” The Village Voice, 1976, pp. 1, 140–141.

Vogels, Jonathan. “Looking into Grey Gardens.” The Direct Cinema of David and Albert

Maysles. Southern Illinois U. Press, 2005, pp. 124–157.

Discussion Questions
  1. What is Yi Gan’s argument against the film’s critics? What evidence does she marshal to support her rebuttal of the critics?

  2. Gan arrays negative reviews of the film and calls those views into question by exploring the ideological underpinnings of critics’ viewpoints. Does Gan deal fairly or evenhandedly with the film critics and movie reviewers she is rebutting to present herself as a credible researcher and writer? How might the critics respond to Gan?

  3. Is rebuttal effective when it comes to responding to film critics and reviewers? Have you ever disagreed with a movie reviewer? Which movie or television series would you rebut the critics to defend and what are some library resources you would use to get started?