Back in the early ’70s, aging socialite Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Edie scandalized the tony town of East Hampton, N.Y., by secluding themselves in squalor inside their crumbling seaside mansion. That they happened to be the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis made them especially interesting to filmmakers Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter). Yet the resulting documentary, newly reissued on video, isn’t primarily concerned with raking up muck about one wing of America’s royal family, or even with capturing blue-blood culture on the skids. Recording the Beales’ fall from social grace is really a pretext for delving into a profoundly dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
Hovering on the periphery like proverbial flies on the wall, the Maysles make us privy to a painfully intimate, perversely compelling pas de deux: Former debutante Edie blames her invalid mother for ending her New York showbiz career and scaring off all suitors, while the elder Edith, a former singer who gave up her own career for a doomed marriage to a society lawyer, makes all-consuming demands on her daughter. Basically living in one bedroom, dressed in makeshift clothing, and surrounded by countless cats, these sad, bickering, mutually dependent women are like two Tennessee Williams heroines, acting out a real-life drama in a setting better suited to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? They’re so lost in their private world that they barely seem to notice their surroundings anymore. We, however, see every sordid detail. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to look away.