When Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens was released, it became an instant cult classic, turning its subjects – Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter (also named Edith) – into folk heroines. Relatives of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Beales were East Coast socialites who holed themselves up in their Long Island mansion, allowing it to become overrun with raccoons and cats. The documentary revealed a long-festered codependant relationship between the two women. Little Edie, the daughter, became a gay icon due to her sharp wit as well as her innovative and inventive fashion sense (due to alopecia, Little Edie was bald, so she improvised creative head scarves out of various articles of clothing). The documentary acted as a true-to-life Grand Dame Guignol drama, heightened by the poverty, squalor and filth in which the two women lived.
What the excellent documentary lacked was a back story – and HBO provides one in Michael Sucsy’s wonderful adaptation. While he recreates some of the most iconic moments of the documentary, he also adds a history to the lives of the Beales – especially Little Edie’s halcyon days as a wannabe starlet in New York. The viewers are given a history – which feels a touch rushed – as we see Big Edie (Jessica Lange) endure a terrible marriage to Phelan Beale (Ken Howard), a wealthy attorney who is financially chafing underneath the extravagant spendthrift lifestyle of his wife. Daughter Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) is a beautiful socialite who fends off her dad’s insistent on marriage, so that she can pursue a career in Hollywood – she even comes close at one point, winning an audition with film/theater producer Max Gordon.
As seen with the documentary, Little Edie is an engaging and enthusiastic performer – but she was hampered by a distinct lack of talent as well as her inimitable Long Island lock-jaw accent (which Barrymore captures perfectly). But her dreams of stardom endure, and she sees the documentary as an opportunity to jumpstart her aborted acting career.
Sucsy and his fellow screenwriter Patricia Rozema touch on all the major points of the two women’s lives – from Little Edie’s truncated coming out party, to the eventual financial ruin of Big Edie. When mistreated by a married lover, Little Edie starts to unravel emotionally, complimenting the mental degradation of her mother. When returning home she sees that Big Edie starts to let herself and her surroundings got to pot – cats start to roam the house. In a particularly heartbreaking passage, Little Edie is struck by stress-induced alopecia, further driving her into depression.
While this film won’t replace the documentary, it’s still an excellent example of a biopic. The iconic mansion is recreated superbly. The handsome home is overcome with tree branches, growing piles of trash, and infested by herds of cats and raccoons. A side-by-side viewing of the film and documentary would confirm how spot-on the filmmakers were in remaking this world.
And Suscy and Rozema’s solid script provides ample opportunity for Lange and Barrymore to produce wonderful performances. Lange’s excellent turn as Big Edie isn’t much of a surprise – the acting vet has been hailed as one our nation’s greatest talents, and she doesn’t disappoint as the mercurial Big Edie. Even when she’s covered in authentic aging makeup, she still manages to shine through the prosthetic and grease paint and does a great job.
But as masterful as Lange is, it’s Barrymore that truly astounds in the part as Little Edie. With her hooded gaze and menacing march, the actress nails the physical idiosyncracies of her subject. But just performing a long list of neuroses competently doesn’t make for a transcendent performance – it’s finding an actual human being underneath all of the tics that is key to good acting – and Barrymore creates a full character – capturing the tragedy and sadness as well as the puckish humor of Little Edie.
This is Barrymore’s (and Lange’s) show, but they are backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Daniel Baldwin, Ayre Gross, Ken Howard, and in a show-stopping cameo, Jeanne Triplehorn as Jackie O. After watching the film, viewers will have some context for approaching Little Edie, who has since become a figure of both derision and reverence. Reality TV has made huge media stars out of people like Little Edie – fame seekers with no discernible performing talent, but an abundance of ambition. But there’s more to Little Edie – she’s represents the emptiness and shallowness of American aristocracy and its decay. But beneath all that pointy-headed thinking, there’s a surprisingly resilient and thoughtful woman – a woman who Barrymore understands perfectly, regardless of any cultural distractions.