1975, East Hampton, New York. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles visit Grey Gardens, the once-grand home of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, to show them an advance cut of their documentary about them. As the four watch Little Edie dance up on the projected screen, Big Edie remembers the days when her daughter was young and gorgeous: “She had everything.” 1936, The Pierre Hotel, NYC. Big Edie and her husband Phelan await their daughter’s debutante entrance in hopes she’ll find a suitor – perhaps a Getty. But Edie is unhappy in the social spotlight; leaving without making an entrance, she tells her mother that her dream is to be an actress and a dancer; Big Edie counters that with a man who’ll give her a long leash, Little Edie can “have it all.”
1973, East Hampton. Originally, the Maysles wanted to make a film about the Bouviers, in particular Jackie Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill. Now, they’re pitching a film devoted entirely to Big and Little Edie, Jackie’s aunt and first cousin. Their house is a mess – ivy has swallowed up the outdoor shingles, the garden is overgrown, and there are raccoons, pet feces and mountains of garbage inside. As the brothers apprehensively approach Little Edie, they’re surprised and delighted when she agrees to make the film, viewing it as “my big chance” to relaunch her acting career.
1936. Arriving at a pristine Grey Gardens after wintering in the city, Phelan scolds Big Edie for living too extravagantly (it’s the Depression) and orders her to cut staff, though he does allow Gould, her piano accompanist, to stay. Phelan also wants Big Edie to get their daughter engaged to a “nice young man,” but Little Edie wants only to join her father in New York. It’s clear the Beales’ marriage is on the rocks; as Big Edie accuses Phelan of sleeping with his NY secretary, she flirts shameless in front of him with Gould. With Phelan away during the week, and with Little Edie and cousin Jackie at the beach during the day, Big Edie and Gould sing and canoodle indoors; the elder Beale recalls, “I was happier singing than anything I’ve ever done since I was born.” The good times end when Phelan arrives to a Friday party in full swing; throwing out the guests, he tells his wife he’s taking their daughter to New York. Little Edie is thrilled to leave Grey Gardens for the big city, ignoring her mother’s pleas to stay.
In NYC, Little Edie is less interested in getting a job than chasing her acting dreams. At a modeling luncheon she impresses Max Gordon, a top producer, who promises her an acting audition. She also meets Sec. of the Interior Julius “Cap” Krug, who woos her even though he’s married. Meanwhile, Big Edie is heartbroken when Gould walks out on her, and begins to neglect her bills and the house while obsessing about Little Edie. Learning of her daughter’s affair, she decides to tell her husband, who forces Little Edie back to East Hampton days before her audition. Later, on the pretense of driving to get some cat food, Little Edie returns to NYC, but is shattered when Cap, livid that Edie’s spontaneous appearance at his hotel might reveal their affair, breaks up with her. Little Edie returns home in shock.
Years pass, and Grey Gardens continues to deteriorate. In 1956, Phelan Beale, who had divorced Big Edie a decade earlier, dies. Sons Buddy and Phelan Jr arrive to encourage their mother to sell the house, but Big Edie refuses. For her part, Little Edie’s stress is showing; her hair is falling out and she trashes her room in a rage, accusing her mother of holding her back. Yet she remains.
In the decade following the JFK assassination, Grey Gardens becomes a total wreck, and the County Health Department is getting complaints. When two officials arrive, Little Edie demands a warrant, and they leave. Worse, Buddy tells his mother her trust has run out – there’s no heat or electricity, and the
grocery store will no longer deliver to them. Finally, the authorities return, warrant in hand, carting away animals and posting a failed inspection notice. Later, Little Edie confronts a photographer slinking around the grounds; to his surprise, she lets him take candid shots of her and the house. Soon after, the Beales become news when the photos are published with accompanying stories and headlines like “Bouvier Black Sheep.” Ultimately, the Beales are bailed out by Jacqueline Onassis, who visits Grey Gardens and ends up paying for a clean-up and repairs. During her visit, a jealous Little Edie brags that “I was the golden girl,” adding that if she’d married JFK’s brother Joe, “I would have been First Lady.” Jackie answers sadly, “I wish it had been you.”
1975. The Mayles’ private screening ends. Little Edie labels it “an artistic smash,” though Big Edie feels “I look fat,” and the two end up arguing bitterly about whether Big Edie held her daughter back. After the two make up, Big Edie surprises Little Edie with wedding jewels she’d hidden for years. In NYC, Little Edie attends the premiere of Grey Gardens, basking in a standing ovation as it ends. Meanwhile, Big Edie gets a call from the Times asking for a comment. “It’s all in the movie,” she says.
A year later, we learn that Big Edie died. Little Edie sold Grey Gardens on the condition it not be demolished, and lived in NYC, Montreal and California before settling in Bal Harbour, FL (where she died in 1975). Before moving away, she performed a cabaret act at in Greenwich Village. We join her one last time as she sings and dances through one of her mother’s favorite tunes, “Tea for Two.”