When Tom Waugh and I were poring over the pitches for our Queer Film Classics book series, I had thought to suggest an edition on Grey Gardens, the Maysles Brothers' hugely influential and legendary 1975 documentary. The film has the filmmakers spending several weeks with mom and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie, two recluses who live in squalor in a dilapidated mansion in the Hamptons.
The film is a haunting portrait of the two women, who over time have clearly become very dependent on one another but who maintain a tortured relationship. The film has been picked apart by critics ever since it took its first bow for what many saw as exploitation of two people who, at best, are very odd, at worst, mentally ill.
But Grey Gardens has also become noteworthy as one of those films that wasn't made with a gay audience in mind, but managed to find one anyway (alongside The Wizard of Oz and Showgirls). Gays turned it into a stage musical, and a HBO dramatic feature and Rufus Wainwright even wrote a song about it.
Seems perfectly queer to me. I think one of the main reasons it resonates so powerfully with gay men is because when the film was released, homosexuality was still thought of by many as a mental illness. Thus, Big Edie and (especially) Little Edie form the quintessential point of identification for a queer audience: they are outsiders precisely because of their staunch unwillingness to conform to the rules, regulations and expectations demanded of them by their culture. As they sing, dance and bicker about who exactly it was that put off that gentleman caller all those decades ago, they personify defiance itself.
While Little Edie's insanity is up for debate (Albert Maysles insists she was not insane, simply eccentric), if she is mad, it's for good reason. She was a defiant woman trapped in a time when the rules of the game didn't give women a chance to define themselves. Alternately liberated and repressed, happy and miserable, trapped by archaic etiquette while freed from conformity, their contradictions reflect the complexity of a contemporary queer existence.