Grey Gardens (2009)

grey-gardens-poster-1“You’re an acquired taste,” says Big Edie (Jessica Lange) to Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) in HBO’s Grey Gardens. A lot of people have acquired that taste in the years since the first Grey Gardens (1975), a documentary by Albert and David Maysles about the Edies, who were related to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Little Edie became something of a camp/cult anti-celebrity, an eccentric still dreaming of stardom well into her fifties. She got stardom, all right. Grey Gardens, an odd and depressing portrait, eventually inspired a Broadway musical in 2006, and now it has become a docudrama that intersperses ‘70s-era scenes familiar from the documentary with flashbacks to Big and Little Edie’s younger days.

It’s safe to say that this is a game-changing performance by Drew Barrymore. She has certainly been appealing and entertaining in other roles, but her embodiment of Little Edie — especially if you’ve seen the original — exists on a new level that goes beyond mimicry. Barrymore is Little Edie, only with an actress’ sense of how Little Edie’s life ties together. The younger, more eager Little Edie matches up perfectly with the older, restless one. Little Edie has personality and ambition; what she doesn’t have is common sense. She gets involved with a married man, effectively ending her Hollywood dreams when her forbidding father (Ken Howard) finds out about the affair.

Little Edie and Big Edie were blessed with an independent spirit but cursed to live in a time that offered no way to use it. In all its incarnations, Grey Gardens is about being trapped. Little Edie feels confined at home in the increasingly dilapidated Grey Gardens with her mother. Big Edie’s self-made prison is her own stubbornness — she won’t sell or leave Grey Gardens even when feral cats and raccoons have the run of the place. It takes media attention to shame Jackie Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) into paying for repairs and cleaning before the house gets condemned. Jackie, too, feels trapped: in this telling, she never really wanted to be a public figure, and sighs that she would’ve traded places with Little Edie.

Directed by Michael Sucsy (a first-timer) from a teleplay he wrote with filmmaker Patricia Rozema, Grey Gardens treats the Edies more gently than the Maysles did. In the Maysles film, the camera just stares at Little Edie’s antics and her bickering with Big Edie; it’s pretty much an unfeeling film. (In the new film, the deluded Little Edie watches the Maysles’ footage and feels validated; Big Edie seems disgusted.) At the very end, Sucsy shows us Little Edie performing a cabaret number in New York, and it’s highly ambiguous. Her audience is probably appreciating her ironically — they came to see the famous train wreck. Little Edie, though, is lost in her dream; irony isn’t on her radar. All she knows is that people came out to see her sing and dance — she finally got what she always wanted.

Grey Gardens is substantially less dispiriting than the original film, mainly because of the dead-on performances (let’s not neglect Jessica Lange’s tragic turn, shading from hope to disappointment to resignation) and the structure that treats these women not as a freak show for hipsters but as living, breathing people who have a lot more in common with us than we might like to admit.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, cult, drama

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