When it was announced that the Maysles brothers’ iconic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens was being turned into a television movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, cultists were deeply skeptical, if not downright apoplectic. The Maysles’ film about Big and Little Edie Beale—relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living in a dilapidated gothic mansion overrun with cats, raccoons, and the ghosts of their glorious past—left fans rightly protective of these staunch characters, and with a deep, almost pathological obsession for their story. So it’s an enormous relief to report that Barrymore and Lange aren’t just good as Little and Big Edith Bouvier: They’re damn near perfect. The same can be said of the film, which has rightly been festooned with Emmy nominations.
Grey Gardens jumps back and forth in time between the Beales’ glory days as beautiful American aristocrats leading lives of wealth and privilege, and their later descent into madness and poverty following decades of bad decisions and mental dissipation. By the time the Maysles caught up with the Beales for a documentary that walked a very fine line between empathy and exploitation, the women were half-mad squatters vamping and mugging in star turns that turned into something like a psychological horror show or a lost Tennessee Williams play.
Though Barrymore’s acting abilities are limited, the remarkable role of Little Edie plays to her strengths; never has her spacey girlishness seemed sadder or more achingly poignant. Barrymore masters the details of speech, posture, and accent, but her performance goes much deeper than mere impersonation, capturing the character’s melancholy, deluded essence. Lange is every bit her equal, and the film’s bifurcated, achronological structure is heartbreaking and appropriate, since the past takes on an almost physical presence in the Maysles’ cult classic. The TV movie Grey Gardens is so much more than a footnote to a great documentary; it makes pop-culture history come alive in powerful and gloriously unexpected ways.
Key features: Slim featurettes tracing the relationship between the Maysles’ documentary and the TV movie.