Grey Gardens is further proof that some of the best filmmaking around can be found on HBO. The movie, which arrives on DVD July 14, would almost doubtlessly have garnered Oscar nominations for its two stars had it been released theatrically, and I could see it snagging a few others as well. Then again, why quibble over where it is released? The important thing is that it got made. HBO deserves another feather in its cap for stepping up the plate.
Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore play Edith and "Little Edie" Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The early scenes of this amazing true story find the Beale women living in high society. Edith once dreamed of becoming a star, but it never happened. Edie has the same aspirations, which are continually undercut by her passive-aggressively jealous mother. When Edie manages to snag an audition with a big-time producer, Edith guilt-trips her out of it.
Over time, the Beales fall out of their cushy world. Edith's marriage crumbles, money runs dry, and so on. Edie, tied tightly by the apron strings, lives with her mother at Grey Gardens, the family's country estate. As the decades pass, the place falls to ruin. The women don't pick up after themselves or keep the home in repair. Things become so bad that Edie even begins feeding the raccoons that come foraging inside the trash-ridden domicile. When local health authorities threaten to evict them, the Beales stubbornly argue for the right to live as they please. Their plight becomes public when two filmmaking brothers named Maysles come to make a documentary about the women.
Cinema buffs will no doubt recall the Maysles' work, also titled Grey Gardens, and its follow-up, The Beales of Grey Gardens (both available on DVD from Criterion, incidentally). If you've ever seen either of those docs - or even parts of them - you will be amazed at how accurately Jessica Lange and (especially) Drew Barrymore capture the essence of Edith and Little Edie. Both actresses physically transform themselves into the real-life people they are playing. That said, the acting goes beyond mere impersonation. Lange and Barrymore mine the complicated dynamic between the Beales: that they needed each other even more than they wanted to be independent of one another.
The movie, directed by Michael Sucsy, spends a lot of time delving into the strange mother/daughter relationship and, as a result, goes miles beyond what you normally see in a familial drama. Then again, he's got some of the most remarkable source material ever. Grey Gardens shows us the trajectory of the Beales' lives together, suggesting that they really didn't fit in anywhere. Despite their ties to the Bouviers - and, resultantly, the Kennedys - they didn't really embrace the high society way of life. On the surface, perhaps, but deep down inside they were more individualistic. At the same time, they were never really prepared to take care of themselves, and so when times got tough, they simply did not. What mattered to them was what didn't happen: Edith didn't have the singing career she dreamed of, while Edie failed to become a movie star.
This is all great stuff, and the acting makes it even greater. Lange and Barrymore both give performances that are among the best of their individual careers. I've always felt that Barrymore was a much better actress than she gets credit for. Yes, she makes a lot of lightweight romantic comedies, but look at Mad Love, or Riding in Cars with Boys, or Lucky You. When working in a more ambitious picture, the actress is capable of getting under the skin of her characters and embodying them. She does it again, making us understand how desperately Little Edie wants to be embraced and accepted, even if it means exposing her odd life for a camera. If Barrymore does not win an Emmy for this role, something is very wrong.
Grey Gardens is an excellent adaptation of an excellent documentary. If watching the real Edith and Edie Beale is slightly more hypnotic, that is not to say that the HBO movie isn't worth seeing too. In fact, the two pictures would make for an incredible double feature.
( 1/2 out of four)
Grey Gardens comes to DVD with two bonus features. The first is audio commentary from writer/director Michael Sucsy and several key crew members. The second is an 11-minute comparison of the documentary and this movie. Here, you can really see how the filmmakers and stars worked to obsessively recreate reality. From the mannerisms of the Beales to the perfect recreation of their cluttered bedroom, it was clearly a labor of love.
Grey Gardens is unrated but contains adult language and sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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