TV Movie Review: HBO’s “Grey Gardens”

04.17.09 8 years ago

Peter Stranks/HBO

Chances are that either you’ve never heard of Albert and David Maysles’ documentary “Grey Gardens” or else you cherish it as an oddball favorite. Its status as a cult classic outweighs its enduring import as art.

I’m not sure I would advocate very strongly for the documentary, but having seen it absolutely added to my appreciation of HBO’s new telefilm “Grey Gardens.”

There will be some uninitiated viewers who complain that Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange are hammy and overstated as the reclusive and eccentric Little Edie and Big Edie Bouvier Beale, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The real Little Edie and Big Edie were oversized characters themselves and the performances by Barrymore and Lange are so uncanny that they verge on remarkable. 

As a movie, “Grey Gardens” suffers from some narrative clunkiness, but the triumph for the two leading ladies — and for the costuming and makeup department that play no small part in the illusion — is beyond question.

[Review after the break…]

Big Edie and Little Edie, direct relatives to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, came to public notice in the ’70s when their East Hampton community threatened them with legal action due to the state of squalor at Grey Gardens, their 28-room mansion. At the time the Maysles entered their lives, Big Edie was 77 and Little Edie was 56 and they’d lived together in near-isolation for many years, either unaware or impervious to the fact that their gorgeous house was becoming rundown and infested with cats.

The Maysles film isn’t about providing context for the Edies. It’s just a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of two extraordinary women in a co-dependent relationship that defies logic and definition.

For the HBO movie, director Michael Sucsy and co-writer Patricia Rozema have worked to fill in some of those gaps, to answer the question of how a upper-crust Queen B and her debutante daughter came to drop out of society entirely. 

“Grey Gardens” pulls its narrative, which flashes back and forth over 40 years, both from exhaustive research, but also from a campy cinematic playbook that probably included “Mommie Dearest,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” “Mildred Pierce” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Wherever strong women choose to live lives of individualistic desperation apart from the company of men, Sucsy and Rozema have found source material.

While the Maysles film was entirely without narrative, this “Grey Gardens” is still a loose affair. In the 1930s, we see Big and Little Edie in their youthful peak, living decadent lives of wine and music. In the 1950s, we see Big Edie already facing her disappointed and alienated life as Little Edie attempts to take her last stab at both romance (Daniel Baldwin as the married object of her affections) and the theatrical career of her dreams. The 1970s “present” is a jumbled mixture of the time before the arrival of the Maysles, with Jackie-O (Jeanne Tripplehorn) rushing in to save them from the health department, and the filming of the documentary, which includes reenactments of several of the doc’s most famous scenes.

Sucsy and Rozema contrive several big scenes that are catalysts for the two characters’ increased withdrawl from the world, but the storytelling is so predictable and pat that it’s hard to get emotionally involved. I don’t blame the writers for aspiring to do more than just a scripted version of the documentary, but the need for catharsis in the end is almost stifling in its conventionality.

Nobody’s going to watch “Grey Gardens” for its groundbreaking storytelling or even for its clear understanding of the characters. They’re going to watch for Lange and Barrymoore and both stars deliver performances that may force HBO into something of a Sophie’s Choice. They’re both locks for Emmy nominations, but do you push Barrymore for lead and Lange for supporting so that they can both win? Or do you acknowledge that, realistically, they share the movie and probably ought to go head-to-head for award recognition?

Both Edies were performers, so for Barrymore and Lange, it’s almost a game. They’re actors playing women who acted for the men in their lives, acted for each other and acted for the Maysles Brothers when they were filming. They get to try on voices, modulating their tones to suggest the passage of time. They get to wear flamboyant costumes and old-age makeup and teeth. They also get to sing and dance. Lange and Barrymore had the documentary, plus Albert Maysles’ “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” to use as touchstones. The main lesson in the documentary must have been that with Big Edie and Little Edie, it was impossible to go too big.

Liberated from any need for restraint, Barrymore is the obvious revelation here (with her two Oscars, Lange as reliable a known quantity as you could hope for). I was just looking up and down Barrymore’s credits and while you can find a dozen performances where one might find her adorable or enchanting, the number of performances that make you go, “My goodness, she can ACT” is far smaller. This is one of those. In addition to a flawless mimicry of a patrician accent that could peel paint, Barrymore finds a way never to get lost in her increasingly layers of prosthetics. In fact, the makeup must have helped her, because the real Little Edie gave the impression of remaining a hopeful, energetic young woman trapped in a decaying house and a decaying body. Barrymore makes sure that her eyes never lose their sparkle and that she never abandons a certain physical bearing and grace as she ages. Maybe it’s her own background as a child star coming to the surface, but Barrymore gets Little Edie completely.

In contrast to Barrymore’s physicality, Lange barely moves the entire movie. Was this a thematic choice, I wonder? To show Little Edie as a body-in-motion and Big Edie as a a body-in-repose? This means that Lange is mostly bed-ridden, lounged on a couch or draped across a piano. The idea that Big Edie was this passive aggressive monster who held her daughter back is probably the least original though in “Grey Gardens'” head, but Lange doesn’t play the woman as more of a caricature than she really was and she seems to hold back on Big Edie’s true motivations.

Tripplehorn’s Jackie O has only a single scene, but it’s marvelously vivid.

The men in “Grey Gardens” barely register. As Phelan Beale, husband to one Edie, father to the other, Ken Howard gives a Ken Howard performance, which is to say that he seems capable of being the villain of the piece, but his bluster feels more sympathetic and human as the movie progresses. Baldwin’s turn is memorable because of how perfectly he’s synthesizing the mannerisms of brothers William and Alec.

There are certain kinds of movies that HBO does that nobody in the future world would dare to try. The network has given a home to intimate, character-driven, period dramas ranging from “Bernard and Doris” to “Longford” to “Warm Springs” or “Something the Lord Made.” Like all of those films, “Grey Gardens” may lack pizzazz, but because of its small scale, it offers big rewards, mostly for Barrymore and Lange.

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