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It’s the stuff of legend, that of finding an all-encompassing, passionate love that will last a lifetime. The story of Edie and Thea is a documentary about two soulmates whose love begins with an instant magnetic attraction and lasts 42 years. But like the great love stories of literature and lore – Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Gertrude and Alice – Edie and Thea’s story is one of forbidden love. Shortly after they meet in New York’s West Village in the early 1960s, they become “engaged”, though the idea of a civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples was unthinkable at the time and would not come to pass for another 4 decades.
The first that many Americans heard of Edie Windsor is when the 83-year-old spitfire's discrimination case, Windsor vs. United States, came before the Supreme Court last month. But, she's no stranger to film lovers and LGBT activists: The 2009 documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement —which chronicles her 40-year engagement to her wife, the late Thea Spyer — won 21 audience and jury awards on the festival circuit and continued to garner fans when it was released on DVD in 2010.
Directed by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir (who also made the sad but riveting doc The Brandon Teena Story), Edie & Thea follows the development of Edie and Thea's relationship from the closeted 1960s through their decades of adventures and world travels, creating a portrait of a life that was what reviewer Brian Orndorf called "a sensation of romantic flight before medical realities grounded the couple."
After Spyer starts experiencing multiple sclerosis, her mobility is affected but the couple's love never is, and her last flight takes her and Windsor to Toronto, where they finally legally tie the knot. The film, still available on DVD from Breaking Glass, changed not only Edie's public profile but also the lives of viewers and the filmmakers.
"In Washington on [March 27]," recalls Olafsdottir, "I met an older woman who was waiting on line to get into the Supreme Court for Edie's case. She told me that she was there because she had seen our documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement and has been following Edie's case since then. She had also lost her longtime partner just few months ago. When she found out that I was one of the directors for the film, she burst into tears and thanked me profoundly. It's responses like this that makes you very happy about what you do and the stories you tell as a documentary director and producer."
Muska concurs "The film has had a tremendous impact on all of our lives — it debuted in 2009, and we, along with the film, were immediately drawn into the marriage equality movement," she says. "We're really proud that we are able to contribute strength to the movement in this way."
The filmmakers say the documentary has "become a kind of international emissary for marriage equality," and it's been shown in many places to increase awareness, such as Bosnia, Slovakia, Lithuania, and more.
"On a more personal level," says Muska, "people often write to us and tell us that their mother or father or aunt or siblings have watched the film and it changed their view on gay marriage. One guy told us at a screening that 'I didn't know lesbians could be like this.' A friend's teenage son told us, 'I hope I find love like this one day.' And we even cut in Italian subtitles for an Italian woman's future mother-in-law, who ended up writing to us praising the film and the insight it offered her about her daughter's marriage."
Celebrities got in the game too. Rosie O'Donnell praised Edie & Thea, calling it "an amazingly beautiful film that speaks of love, commitment, equality, survival, and even death," while author and historian Leslie Schwalm took away a central message of it. saying, "Great advice for lifelong lovers: dancing and sex!"
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were together for 40 years before they married in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009 Windsor, in the midst of her grief, was ordered to pay $363,000 in estate taxes as the federal government did not recognise the pair's marriage.
Windsor appealed, and won. The supreme court agreed to hear her challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, or Doma, in December, a decision Windsor told the Guardian had left her "delirious with joy".
"I think Doma is wrong for all of the various ways in which it discriminates against same-sex married couples and against gays all together," Windsor said. "It's enormously satisfying and fulfilling and exciting to be where we are now."
Spyer, she said, would have been proud of her achievement. "I think she'd be so proud and happy and just so pleased at how far we have come. It's a culmination of an engagement that happened between us in 1967 when we didn't dream that we'd be able to marry."
Windsor, now a snappily dressed 83-year-old who is rarely seen without a long string of pearls around her neck, seems to have easily slotted into her position as the public face of marriage equality. But it is a role which must have seemed hard to imagine when in her early 20s, the then Edith Schlain married Saul Windsor, a friend of her brother's. The two separated in 1952 after less than a year.
"I told him the truth," Windsor recalled in an interview with NPR this year. "I said: 'Honey, you deserve a lot more. You deserve somebody who thinks you're the best because you are. And I need something else.'"
Windsor was born in Philadelphia in 1929, in the midst of the Depression. Her parents lost their home and business not long after her birth. In interviews she has recalled identifying with the leading men in the movies she went to watch while growing up, not the woman he was attempting to woo. Despite those feelings, she said she had no awareness of what life as a lesbian could be like.
"I could not imagine a life that way," she told Buzzfeed. "I wanted to be like everybody else. You marry a man who supports you – it never occurred to me I'd have to earn a living, and nor did I study to earn a living."
Edith Windsor, whose Defense of Marriage Act case is to be reviewed by the Supreme Court
'Something like three weeks before Thea died she said: "Jesus we're still in love, aren't we"?' Photograph: Richard Drew/AP
The divorce meant Windsor now had to do just that. She retained her name from the marriage but changed her life by moving to New York and concentrating on her career. Windsor worked as a secretary while studying at New York University. When she graduated with a master's degree in mathematics she took a job at IBM.
Windsor said she would feel envious when she saw other women out together, but still found it hard to be openly gay in pre-Stonewall New York City. Finally, however, she decided she had had enough.
"About 1962, I suddenly couldn't take it any more," she recalled in Edie & Thea: A very long engagement, a 2009 film made about her and Spyer's life and wedding.
"And I called an old friend of mine, a very good friend and I said if you know where the lesbians go please take me. Somebody brought Thea over and introduced her and we just started dancing."
That was in Portofino, a restaurant in Greenwich Village. The pair kept dancing until, as Windsor tells it, she got a hole in her stocking. They would go to parties, dancing all the while, for two years until they started dating. Spyer proposed in 1967, with a brooch rather than a ring – Windsor did not want to face questions from co-workers about the assumed husband-to-be.
"It was a love affair that just kept on and on and on," Windsor said. "It really was. Something like three weeks before Thea died she said: 'Jesus we're still in love, aren't we'."
The couple moved into an apartment near Washington Square in Manhattan, where Windsor still lives, and bought a house together in Southampton, Long Island. Windsor rose to the highest technical position within IBM, and Spyer saw patients in their apartment. In the years following the Stonewall riots they both marched and demonstrated for equal rights.
In 1977, aged 45, Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. They could still dance, Windsor told Buzzfeed, with Spyer ditching her crutches at the dance floor and leading with her good leg.
As Spyer's health deteriorated, Windsor eventually became her full-time care giver. Getting ready for bed could take an hour, preparing to leave the house in the morning three or four, she said in an interview with the NYU alumni magazine.
In 2007, Spyer's doctors told her she had one year left to live.
"Having gotten the bad prognosis she woke up the next morning and said: 'Do you still want to get married?'," Windsor said. "And I said 'Yes'. And she said: 'So do I'."
The pair flew to Canada that year with six friends and were married in Toronto. Windsor wore white, Thea was in all black. The ceremony was officiated by Canada's first openly gay judge, justice Harvey Brownstone.
"Many people ask me why get married," Windsor said in remarks on the steps of the supreme court in March, the day the court heard arguments in her case against Doma.
"I was 77, Thea was 75, and maybe we were older than that at that point, but the fact is that everybody treated it as different. It turns out marriage is different.
"I've asked a number of long-range couples, gay couples who they've got married, I've asked them: 'Was it different the next morning and the answer is always: 'Yes'.' It's a huge difference."
Less than two years after they were married, Spyer died. A month after that, Windsor had a heart attack.
"In the midst of my grief I realised that the federal government was treating us as strangers, and it meant paying a humongous estate tax. And it meant selling a lot of stuff to do it and it wasn't easy. I live on a fixed income and it wasn't easy," she said.
Two lower courts had already ruled that it was unconstitutional for Windsor to have to pay the $363,000 in federal estate taxes. Attorneys representing Windsor argued in the supreme court that Doma violates the constitution in not recognising her marriage to Spyer.
When the Guardian spoke to Windsor back in December, the day the the court agreed to hear her case, the joy in her voice was clear. She felt optimistic, too.
"I really believe in the supreme court. First of all, I'm the youngest in my family and justice matters a lot – the littlest one gets pushed around a lot. And I trust the supreme court, I trust the constitution – so I feel a certain confidence that we'll win."
It turns out she was right.
Festival & Awards
Outfest - 2009
Audience Award for best documentary
Skeive Filme - 2009
Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary
Reel Pride - 2009
Audience & Directorʼs Club Award for Best Documentary
Image Out - 2009
Audience Award for Best Independent Feature Documentary
Three Dollar Bill Cinema, Seattle - 2009
Jury Award for Best Documentary & Audience Award for Favorite Documentary
Docula, Hamburg - 2009
Award for Best Documentary
Madrid Gay & Lesbian Film Festival - 2009
Jury Award for Best Documentary
7th Annual Southwest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival - 2009
Audience Award for Best Documentary
at Melbourne Queer Film Festival - 2010
Winner of Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary
Roze Film Dagen Festival - 2010
Winner of Audience Award for Best Documentary and over all Audiences Favorite Film
Internationales Frauen Film Festival Dortmund/Köln - 2010
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary
Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival - 2010
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary