'Grey Gardens' at 40: Rufus Wainwright on Cult Doc's Enduring Appeal

Singer-songwriter talks seeing his relatives in documentary and how acid influenced his musical tribute to film

Rufus Wainwright shares why, 40 years later, cult documentary 'Grey Gardens' remains a masterpiece. Credit: Tina Tyrell

As revered cult documentary Grey Gardens celebrates its 40th anniversary with a restoration and reissue, the quirky film about Jackie O's eccentric, reclusive relatives has long counted numerous celebrity as fans. Rufus Wainwright, who recorded the 2001 song "Grey Gardens" and enlisted the film's late co-director Albert Maysles to shoot his 2009 CD/DVD Rufus Wainwright: Milwaukee at Last!!!, is one of its biggest, having grown up near the mansion where Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie") lived in squalor and isolation.

Wainwright recently recorded a new version of his 2009 opera Prima Donna with the BBC Orchestra, and as the singer-songwriter preps for its fall release and subsequent live performance, he hopped on the phone with Rolling Stone to discuss the film's charm, influence and legacy.

I'm a huge Grey Gardens fanatic. I've seen it at least a dozen times.

I first saw it in the late Nineties through Justin Vivian Bond, who's a very famous New York downtown fixture. I think it coincided with my emergence — or submergence I should say — into the New York hip scene, which was pretty gay. So Grey Gardens was this Bible that everybody knew about. I actually first watched it with my mother because she was jonesing, like all good mothers, to follow me wherever I chose to go.

It's a perfect mix of both camp ridiculousness and deep emotionality. It wavers between this sordid tale of destruction with a noble spirit attached to it, though it never quite rests on either one of those philosophies. You can watch it as a fun, ridiculous film or as a serious and touching movie about a mother and daughter.

I grew up on Shelter Island, which isn't far [from the mansion] and now I have a house in Montauk, Long Island. The film really captures those seasonal blues that step in after the summer is over and it starts to get pretty bleak. It becomes sort of this metaphorical death.

I probably saw [Little Edie] growing up because I used to ride my bike from Shelter Island to East Hampton. I used to pretend that I lived in East Hampton even though I didn't because I knew that I had all of these cousins who had these beautiful homes there. I'm sure we passed each other on the sidewalk at some point when I was 10.

My favorite scene is the "Tea for Two" scene with the mother singing; that was always an incredible musical number. And of course I loved when Edie's talking about astrology and how she needs to find a Libra male and being a staunch character. S-t-a-u-n-c-h.

I saw the movie a couple of times before I realized that my family is actually in it. There's this part in the movie where Little Edie is showing all of the drawings from long ago when things were a little more together. There's one drawing of her as a teenager and she says, "This was done by Mr. Wainwright in the solarium at Grey Gardens." And then: "He's from a good family; he's on the social register."

My great-grandfather's brother did that drawing. My grandfather, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., was a writer for Life, but he decided to become an artist — and we subsequently went down a few notches in the economic scale. But his cousins were all East Hampton people and knew the Beales and the Bouviers very well. My grandfather's uncle was Mr. Beale's best friend.

Fashion-wise, what [Little] Edie was doing was also very important. She was a brilliant, creative person trapped in a confined situation and if she had the right medication and encouragement, she could have been a brilliant fashion stylist or designer or Diana Vreeland type. So much of the eccentric side of New York, in general, has been obliterated by commerce and commerciality and the Kardashians that it's nostalgic to see films from that era when it didn’t matter how much money you had. It just mattered how smart and entertaining you were.

I wrote the song "Grey Gardens" totally on acid. It was a very surreal collage of all of my favorite things at that time. Whether it was Grey Gardens or Death in Venice or brooches or dragonflies, it was all just mushed together in my head and that song was the outcome.

I have a lot of friends who are, for lack of a better word, modern-day cabaret artists. I think it resonated with the gay community because that whole scene required a kind of higher education in the field of extreme creativity. So Grey Gardens was a national hit and there's something about Little Edie's personality because she wasn't successful, she wasn't famous and she was obviously an aristocratic and an interesting background that I think related more to the downtown performance art scene.

The film is just so beautifully shot. It stands up there with [Federico] Fellini's 8 ½ or [François] Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Whether it's the lighting or the angles or the editing, as an actual filmed work of art, it will always remain a masterpiece.

As told to Jason Newman