As I'm sure you already know, it is a documentary on the eccentric life of the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, who lived in an unbelievably squalid and run-down mansion in East Hampton, USA, and was made in 1975 by Albert and David Maysles.
Edie Beale and her mother were the US equivalent of royal family, and Edie was born at a time when the 'Deb' system was still running, though she never married any of the (two) rich suitors who are constantly mentioned throughout the film, and spent the last years of her life 'looking after' her ancient mother, who was the one with the remaining money. They were both - in their time - great socialite beauties, but by 1975, they lived in Grey Gardens surrounded by cats on the lower floors and raccoons in the attic.
Both the cats and the raccoons ate better than either of the women, and the raccoons had made holes in walls and ceilings, the better to steal the cat food, which was laid out indiscriminately around the house, including the bed in which old Mrs Beale spent most of her waking and sleeping hours. They need not have bothered, I think, because Edie went up to the attic every night and left a great pile of food for them, straight onto the floor below the roof where they lived.
Before this documentary was made, the local Health Department let themselves into the house with fire-hoses and washed the entire lower floor by force, but by the time the Maysles came to make the film, the smell of cat and raccoon urine was too strong for them to stay in the library, so they lodged in a nearby hotel.
It put me in mind of 1960s and 70s mother and daughter domestic set-ups that I had experienced as a young man, and made me realise that this particular combination of women and cats in a run-down house was not peculiar to Britain as I had previously thought.
The Beales had a regular visitor of a young man in his early 20s who just sort of hung around and did the odd job or errand, with a piece of corn-cob as payment - cooked in an open pan of boiling water on a Primus stove by the old woman whilst still in bed. It reminded me that there have been times in my early life when I too hung around eccentric mothers and daughters like this - usually for the sake of a place to stay without rent - and I have tried to recall whether or not I found the situation unusual or eccentric at the time. I think I just found it interesting, and try as I might - I could never actually put myself into their heads, which was probably just as well.
In the extras that followed the main feature on the DVD, there is some footage of the young man as he is today, walking around Grey Gardens and pointing out the recognisable features of the house from the outside. The house itself is now immaculate, and the jungle that used to be where the garden is now, has been cleared and re-planted into something more suitable to a multi-million dollar mansion. There are some clips of Edie leaning over the balcony of the place and looking down into the impenetrable and thorny foliage below, with the sea in the distance over the top of the Budlia and brambles. She bemoans the fact that her favourite scarf flew off her head once, and down to disappear in the jungle below. 'Once it is in there', she says, 'it is never found again'. Curiously, the Beales did employ a gardener, who can be seen wandering in and out of the undergrowth throughout the film, but what he actually did for his money is anyone's guess.
The young man - now in his late 50s and a taxi driver in NYC - sheds a tear when he remembers the 4 years that he spent in the house, and reminds us that old Mrs Beale actually loved him.
The one thing that really seems to impress itself upon him more than any other during his visit was how quickly time passes and how soon he will have passed himself, like Edie Beale and her mother.