Doodad Kind of Town

Thoughts on "Grey Gardens" … and "’Grey Gardens"
April 23, 2009, 10:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This past week – all week- I’ve been on go: choir rehearsals, yoga classes, seeing friends’ community theatre plays and choir concerts, and generally doing my very best impersonation of an extrovert. (Hence the lack of posts on this blog in those last seven days). In part, my “get-up-and-go”-ness is a natural reaction to the warm and sunny spring weather that arrived here this week, a chance to shake off my wintertime torpor and reclusiveness and come to life again. Like a polar bear, I have a natural tendency to hibernate during the coldest months. And, in the words of George Harrison, “little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.”

But then, nothing shakes a girl out of her solitude like spending some cinematic time with the Beale women, Big Edie and Little Edie. If they aren’t a cautionary tale about keeping yourself away from the world, I don’t know who would be.

I spent last Sunday – a cold, grey and rainy day- watching first the legendary Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens,” then the new HBO film (also called “Grey Gardens”) based on that documentary. For the uninitiated, the original “Grey Gardens” was the startling portrait of former socialites, Edith Bouvier “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Beale, who were found living without heat or running water in the raccoon-infested, trash-strewn shell of their formerly luxurious East Hampton estate. By the time the Maysleses arrived, the Beales’ famous cousin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, had paid to clean and refurbish their mansion; nonetheless, they continued to live mostly in a single upstairs room chiefly furnished with a set of twin beds and a mini-fridge full of ice cream and canned pate. And they had cats. Lots of cats. I live with a cat; these women lived with CATS!!!!!)

Our ongoing guilty fascination with “Grey Gardens” (also the source for a 2007 Broadway musical) is not just that the two women – once so rich, beautiful and promising – had descended into horribly impoverished circumstances. It’s more to do with their unapologetically weird co-dependent relationship, one which that they were all too happy to parade in front of the Mayleses’ documentary cameras.

The self-appointed star of the film is 56-year-old “Little Edie” still dreaming of her “big chance” to become a singer and dancer. Thrilled at the presence of the cameras, Little Edie twirls, croons and flirts with the Mayleses, while wearing a succession of bizarrely improvised costumes. (Having lost all her hair in a extreme reaction to emotional stress, Edie was fond of wrapping her head in old sweaters secured with enourmous decorative brooches.) She clearly envisions their film as her long-hoped-for ticket to stardom. Big Edie, by contrast, is the realist and the scold, endlessly entreating her daughter to stop singing and stop making a fool of herself. Little Edie repeatedly complains that she needs to leave Grey Gardens; Big Edie repeatedly reminds her that she could have left at any time – but never will.

In her enthusiastic cluelessness about her lack of talent or the “freakshow” nature of her appeal, Little Edie is the spiritual godmother of every deluded “American Idol” hopeful, plus the hundreds of others who – thirty-five years later – embarrass themselves weekly in the wasteland of reality television. Over the years, she’s become a sort of beloved icon, while Big Edie is typically remembered as the repressive villain of the piece. But for me, Big Edie, however eccentric she may be, is the voice of reason and reality that her daughter desperately needs to hear. Big Edie was herself a singer. Not as good a singer as she believes (we hear her warbly high soprano on a recording of “We Belong Together” early on), but one without unrealistic hopes of stardom. You get the impression she sang just for the love of singing; as she notes mournfully, “Singing is my favorite thing I’ve ever done since I was born.”

That same scene is beautifully interpreted by Jessica Lange in the new HBO film, “Grey Gardens”; it’s a testament to both Lange’s performance and that of Drew Barrymore, who plays Little Edie, that I have trouble remembering which scenes are in the documentary and which are in the new film. Both Lange and Barrymore nail the Beales’ grating Long Island/aristocratic accents, as well as their contentious co-dependency. Most of the documentary’s best remembered scenes are faithfully recreated in the new film, but there’s also the back story on the Beales, told in flashback, which allows us to see both Edies while they were still happy and beautiful, even as we get subtle hints of where their fragility and inability to cope will lead them.

Lange’s Big Edie is a flighty but likable society wife who loves nothing more than sending her husband (Ken Howard) off to work in the city each week, while she sings and entertains in her big house by the ocean. Barrymore’s Little Edie is a delicate and deluded beauty who struggles against her father’s plan to marry her off in the hopes of pursuing a career on stage. Both actresses achieve a compelling portrayal of the difficult, symbiotic relationship between these two women even in these early scenes. And you can clearly see both their charm and their maddening unwillingness to handle the less-than-glamorous details of their lives (such as housekeeping and paying bills).

In one particularly lovely and telling scene, the two of them dance a soft-shoe together to the accompaniment of “Cant’ Help Lovin’ That Man.” Briefly, we sense their mutual sense of fun and love of performing, but then Little Edie spins off into her own weird, dreamily improvised ballet, clearly seeing herself in that moment as a great dancer at work when she really just looks kind of goofy. Whereas Lange’s Big Edie just keeps dancing without any apparent agenda beyond just enjoying herself. But their performance is abruptly stopped when Mr. Beale shows up, and Barrymore’s terrified reaction to her father’s arrival is in notable contrast to Lange who appears happily unruffled by her husband’s displeasure. It’s a scene that encapsulates the Beales’ troubled interrelationships with gut-wrenching clarity.

The latter-day “Grey Gardens” is an almost perfect film, with a handful of ill-judged and jarring scenes thrown in for no other reason than to remind us that the Beales were related to Jackie Kennedy Onassis. In the worst of these, Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Jackie on a visit to the alarmingly dilapidated and waste-fouled Grey Gardens. Jackie has come to offer help to her aunt and cousin, and in Tripplehorn’s performance, you can see her heartbreak over the squalor she finds even as she displays well-bred graciousness. But Barrymore’s Little Edie, wrapped in the fur coat given to her by a former suitor, is strident and angry in the scene, making hostile circles around Jackie and haranguing her with the claim that “I was the Golden Girl! I should have been First Lady!” Nothing about those claims rings true; up to that moment, it’s been Edie’s stated dream to avoid marriage and sing on the stage. First Lady is the last role she’d have wanted to play. There’s also an awkwardly inserted scene of mother and daughter listening to JFK’s funeral on the radio that comes out of nowhere since JFK hasn’t been mentioned until that point, and it’s given undue tragic weight.

But those are small quibbles. For Barrymore and Lange, “Grey Gardens” is the sort of tour de force that has “Multiple Emmy Nominations” written all over it. Come September, it’ll be interesting to see if the actresses wind up competing for the same statuette. I wouldn’t want to have to choose between them for the same honor, myself.


6 Comments so far
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Perhaps if I had seen the documentary before the HBO movie, I would have liked the movie more. As it was, I was bored out of my mind, and couldn’t get past the half-way mark.From what I saw, I couldn’t stand the thought of watching Little Edie descend any further, and couldn’t stand to see Big Edie upbraiding her daughter for being the way she (with a big heap o’ help from hubby) made her in the first place.But, sigh. The Mayles’ version is on my Netflix queue, where there is a tremendous wait due to the miniseries no doubt. Then maybe I’ll get back to the HBO film. They show those things forever.Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for the insights; they’ll doubtless make my 2nd try at the movie more interesting.

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick -In all honesty, I had trouble getting through the documentary, myself. About two-thirds of the way through, Little Edie’s charms had worn off for me, and I felt the Maysles had crossed a line into cheap exploitation. The HBO film had the saving grace of providing the larger context for the womens’ downfall, and made them both more sympathetic and human.But that’s my take. As you might say “Your mileage may vary.”

Comment by Pat

“Your mileage may vary.”It might indeed.

Comment by Rick Olson

Pat – I totally agree. I hated Grey Gardens, the documentary. It was unsavory and exploitative. I didn’t see the point of it at all – just two cracked women who apparently rate our interest simply because they were related to Jackie O. They needed medical care, not an expose. I wouldn’t watch the TV movie as a result.

Comment by Marilyn

Watching the documentary gave me the same uneasy feeling as I got watching “Cinemania” which I recently reviewed. Pointing a camera at people living in eccentric squalor and allowing them to embarass themselves doesn’t constintute a worthwhile reason to make a film.

Comment by Pat

Pat… excellent write-up. You nailed it.Marilyn… sorry to disagree. The Beale women went into the documentary with eyes wide open… their attitude and apparent blindness to their own squalor actually reminds me of some of my own family members. After several decades it can be difficult to view your own surroundings with an “outside eye”… I don’t think the Maysles accomplished that for them, but I do think Jackie O’s presence in the HBO movie was a surrogate for the Greek chorus: ok, ladies, this is not normal!

Comment by Nayana Anthony

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