Grey Gardens [is] an extraordinarily crafty invasion into the lives of Edith Beale and her daughter Edie, better known as Jacqueline Onassis's impoverished aunt and first cousin, whose own fallen estate in East Hampton, Long Island, made gossipy headlines a few years ago. After a Wellesian nod to those headlines and the local scandal that generated them, and after a graceful, passing admission of their own presence as filmmakers, the Maysles brothers prowl the dilapidated Beale manse with an unblinking cool—underscored by an ironic, growing compassion—that achieves what cinéma vérité aims for but seldom conveys: a sense that the material is telling itself.
In the course of the film's feature-length running time, that material becomes hypnotic—as much so as the story of the stunted lives of Miss Havisham and her ward Estelle in Great Expectations, or of Faulkner's ghoulish spinster in "A Rose for Emily."…
Grey Gardens raises in high relief the usual, vexing questions of cinéma vérité: how much are the filmmakers manipulating, exploiting their subjects? and how much are the subjects manipulating, exploiting them? In the end, it resolves these Questions in one shattering moment. Suddenly, Edie advances toward the camera exclaiming with real passion to the filmmakers: "I love you." Scornful at first, then finally outraged as she sees her ward attempting to escape, Mrs. Beale rises from her bed and demands over and over again that Edie shut up. As the battle of nerves and wills rages, what has been implicit all along becomes clear: if the Maysles have been exploiting their subjects, the subjects have been exploiting them as well. And it's a tug-of-war of equals, for in Edith and Edie Beale, the Maysles are luckily contending with subjects that every cinéma vérité film must have to succeed—brilliant, genuine performers.
Charles Michener, "Film Festival Preview: 'Grey Gardens'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1975 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center; all rights reserved), Vol. 11, No. 5, September-October, 1975, p. 38.