1973. Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter - "Little" Edie, aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, were once among the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social register. Now they are East Hampton's most notorious recluses living in a filthy, dilapidated 28-room mansion overrun with cats and memories. Facing an uncertain future, old Edith listens to a recording she made back in 1941 when the house was filled with music and the parlour was her showplace.
1941. The house appears in its former glory as does a younger Edith, rehearsing at the piano in the tastefully appointed parlour with her live-in accompanist, George "Gould" Strong. They have planned a recital to be performed at a lawn party that evening in honour of daughter "Little" Edie's engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. Edith's absent husband, Wall Street attorney Phelan Beale, will be arriving on the train from New York. By then, Edith instructs her butler, Brooks, and little visiting nieces, Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier, all party preparations must be In place. Glamorous daughter Edie enters from a dip in the ocean and is teasingly serenaded by Gould and the others for her nickname. Her intended, Joe, declares his affection for Edie. Spirits remain high until Edie discovers her mother's printed recital programme and learns that her mother plans to steal focus by singing.
Strolling through the gardens for which the house is named, Edie and Joe discover they have differing ideas about marriage. Her desire to be on the stage conflicts with his political aspirations. Elsewhere on the lawn, Edie's grandfather, "Major" Bouvier, hits golf balls as he vents his frustration with daughter Edith to Brooks. The Major wants to secure his family's lasting legacy in the marriage of his granddaughter Edie, but Edith keeps driving away Edie's suitors with her outlandish behaviour. evidenced a moment later as Edith practises an inappropriate concert selection. The Major cruelly gives Edith a dressing down. Edie consoles her mother with a duet they used to sing, the first song Edith ever taught her daughter. Reconciled with her mother, Edie goes upstairs to dress for the party as Edith broods to Gould how lonely the house will be once Edie leaves. To her chagrin she learns that Gould might be leaving as well.
As Gould heads off for another drink, Edith tenderly regards an old framed photograph of her children and gives a more baleful look to the imposing oil portrait of her husband Phelan presiding over the mantle. Perusing Edie's finishing school yearbook as they dress upstairs in a bedroom, Edie and her cousins dream of lives filled with adventure and romance. Downstairs, torn by feelings of impending desertion, Edith inadvertently reveals indiscretions about Edie's past to Joe thus planting doubts in his mind. Joe demands an explanation from Edie who breaks down, imploring him to wait until father Phelan arrives to put things right. But at his expected arrival time. what arrives instead is a telegram tendering regrets and the news that he is in Mexico getting a quickie divorce from Edith. Joe realises the hopelessness of his engagement and breaks it off leaving Edie devastated. But when Edith tries to console her, Edie rebels, leaving Grey Gardens to find her own identity in New York City, out of her mother's suffocating shadow. With the guests now arriving for the party, Edith finds herself deserted by both her daughter and husband. Bidding Brooks to open the doors, Edith goes on with her concert, welcoming all to Grey Gardens as the house closes in around her.
1973. Thirty-two years later, Grey Gardens is a ruin, the eyesore of the neighbourhood. Little Edie bridles at fhe eviction notices they receive from the township of East Hampton. Her eccentric theory of dressing reveals her staunch character and fighting spirit to all, that ?s, but her now aged mother who rules Edie completely. Though Edie regrets her failed attempts at freedom in New York and bitterly resents having had to return home to take care of her mother, Edith regrets nothing. She refuses to take the blame for Edie's missed opportunities. A prisoner of Grey Gardens, Edie is losing the ability to distinguish the line between the past and the present as the ghosts of the house, embodied by the cats themselves, sum up both its decrepitude and its appeal as a refuge.
A welcome intrusion arrives with Jerry, the local dropout who is fitfully helping the two women bring the house up to standard with repairs. But mostly. he just likes being the centre of contention as Edith and Edie vie for his attentions. Playing an old World War Il recording, Edie tries to impress Jerry with her dance routine but finds Jerry's focus hijacked by her bedridden mother who boils him some corn on her bedside hot plate. Envious and frustrated. Edie retreats to the attic and her collection of memorabilia dreaming of escape. Edith waxes nostalgic to Jerry, singing along to an old record she cut with Gould back before he committed suicide. But when Edie tries to sing along, Edith belittles her. Tempers flare as each blames the other for life's disappointments. Edith orders Edie from the room, taking small solace in Norman Vincent Peale's radio broadcast while, unknown to her, Edie packs her suitcase and heads out the front door intending to leave Grey Gardens once and for all. But somehow Edie cannot get beyond the latch of the garden's front gate.
The gardener, Brooks Jr., notes a chill in the air and offers assistance which Edie declines. Pulling her shabby fur coat around her, Edie realises that her season in the sun is past. Frightened at being left alone, Edith calls plaintively out of the window to Edie. She is too frail to open a soup can. Edie ponders her decision and, at long last, relents, returning inside to open the can and heat the soup as the two Edies reconcile themselves to the unspoken truth - that the only genuine loves of their lives are each other.
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