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Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 47.1 (2006) 83-105

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"Concentrated Ground": Grey Gardens and the Cinema of the Domestic

Grey Gardens is the East Hampton, Long Island mansion that was the home of Big Edie Beale and Little Edie Beale, and which lent its name to the eponymous 1976 documentary portrait of the two women, directed by David and Albert Maysles.1 That this film (beautiful, notorious, the object of cultic devotion) should derive its name from the house is fitting, for this is a film that in some very fundamental way is about the practice (albeit here a highly specific practice) of living in a house, about the inhabiting, the use and enjoyment, of domestic space. But Grey Gardens is not just any house, and Grey Gardens (US) is not just any documentary. My intention here is to think specifically about the film and the house and the Edies who lived there and in so doing to privilege, at various moments, this house, Grey Gardens, to think about what ways it might have lent itself to and perhaps even left its own impress on the Edies and their fantastic methods of inhabiting it, and, further, to think about how this house accommodates and is accommodated by the Maysles and their filmmaking practice.

In approaching the film through the lens of domestic architecture and domestic space, I hope I will be able to open the doors wider, so to speak, to think more broadly about what this film has to tell us about the entwinement of domestic space and cinematic space. While the film is, on one level, simply a documentary portrait of two women, it also lends itself to being interpreted as an exercise in genre or genres. Is this a domestic melodrama, shot through with intergenerational mother-daughter conflict? Is it an exercise in gothic horror, a story about a big house and its historical hauntings? Is it a musical? The desire to respond to Grey Gardens in terms of genre is strong and it is a desire that, as I will argue, is generated by the film's deep investigation of [End Page 83]

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Figure 1
Little Edie Beale in front of Grey Gardens in a publicity still for the film. Courtesy of Photofest.
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domestic space and the way in which it might be inhabited. Through close attention to the way domestic space is used and represented in Grey Gardens and through glancing references to an array of genre films, I hope to show that it is difficult to think about genre without thinking about the way almost every genre embodies a mode of meditation on and use of the house and domestic space.

Big Edie Beale was originally Edith Ewing Bouvier, born into the socially prominent Bouvier family (she was the aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) who, like a character from James or Wharton, made her debut at Sherry's (one of the regnant society restaurants in late 19th/early 20th century New York) and then a good marriage to her father's law partner, a southerner named Phelan Beale. Big Edie was an amateur singer with professional aspirations. Her inclination towards public performance was not in keeping with her position as an upper class socialite matron dividing her time between the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the eastern end of Long Island. In the early 1920s Phelan Beale (Or "Mr. Beale" as the Edies refer to him in the film) bought a summer place for his family in East Hampton, New York. This was, of course, Grey Gardens. It was here that Big Edie began to depart from the narrow prescriptions of proper social behavior for a woman of her class.

According to John H. Davis, her nephew and the Bouvier family's in-house biographer, at Grey Gardens she "became first a thrower of wild parties frequented by an assortment of poets, musicians, painters, dropouts, and oddballs."2 By 1936, Grey...


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