Grey Gardens: A Reflection of How Women’s Expectations Have Changed

Last weekend, I saw the premier of the HBO TV movie, Grey Gardens.  This is a fictionalized account of the Edie Beales, a mother (“Big Edie,” played in the movie by Jessica Lange) and daughter (“Little Edie,” played by Drew Barrymore), who went from high society New York to living in a house that was condemned by the government.  The HBO movie goes back and forth from the past, telling viewers the Beales’ story, starting with Little Edie’s debut in 1936 to the 1970s when the Mayles brothers came to make a documentary about them (the original Grey Gardens, a documentary, was released in 1975) and how they were living at the time.  It was a very big downturn – the house was in poor condition and the women seemed a little…off.

The movie is a feminist commentary – a look at the “rules” for women at the time, especially for those like the Edies.  The primary goal in life for Little Edie was to find a husband.  The fact that Little Edie wanted to become an actress was something that wasn’t considered acceptable for her family.  It is like someone today who would want to be a MySpace girl rather than get a “real job” at an office. The movie also comments on how women at the time pretty much relied on men to take care of them, and how little options were available to them.  Big Edie and her husband, Phelan, were divorced.  He gave her an allowance on a monthly basis. But after his death, the bulk of the money went to his new family, and Big Edie was left in the cold. While it was fine for women to work before marriage (Phelan had in fact offered to give Little Edie a secretarial job at his law firm, only to have her turn it down because she wanted to be an actress), it certainly wasn’t proper to do so after marriage.  In any case, there was a suggestion that only certain jobs were “proper.”  Certainly, acting was not.

Some say that the reason why these women became recluses in their own house was because they were both mentally ill.  Others say that it was Big Edie who had the problem, and that Little Edie was just a victim of emotional abuse from her mother.  Regardless, I think the movie is a good documentary of how far women have progressed in our society. Big Edie married around 1917 – BEFORE WOMEN GOT THE VOTE.  Little Edie, who was two or three years old when the 19th Amendment passed, grew up in a society that was already very different from her mother’s.  It was a little bit easier to have some sort of “real” identity by then, at least for a woman who was unmarried.  For Big Edie, the only identity she had was Grey Gardens itself, which was under her name (likely the reason why she refused to sell after her husband’s death.  Selling the property to her meant that she no longer existed).

The Edies’ story is sad, yet very interesting to watch.  Seeing the movie, I can’t help feeling thankful that I was not born in those years. Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore both did a great job playing roles which required them to age forty years.  Both actresses deserve Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for a job well-done.

Grey Gardens, which premiered on HBO on April 17, will re-air several times this month.