Grey Gardens premières on HBO tonight at 7pm Central time.
Has any story, truth or fiction, ever taken a more ass-backward journey into the public consciousness than Grey Gardens? The Maysles’ little-seen 1975 documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier’s eccentric, house-bound aunt and cousin was turned into a Tony-winning musical adaptation that devoted its entire first act to speculation about its main characters’ pasts. Now the Beales’ story has been rejiggered once again into a high-gloss HBO production, complete with A-list star power and eye-popping production values. The new movie takes even bigger steps away from the cinema vérité authenticity of the original documentary, taking major cues from the musical in the flashback sequences that make up the majority of the film. It’s a long way from the grainy, unpolished voyeurism of the original documentary—and one sure to hook an exponentially larger audience on the Beales than either of its excellent but admittedly niche predecessors.
Back in 2007 when the HBO adaptation was announced, there was a lot of muttering over what would surely be a Hollywood-ified, chintzy knockoff of a beloved cult classic, especially when current romantic-comedy queen Drew Barrymore was announced in the role of Little Edie. In the comments of the A.V. Club newswire post announcing the project, readers (some of whom, presumably, are reading this now) were 100 percent against the idea: “Fuck this shit. That movie is gold. No need to fuck with it”; “Oh Gawd... This is the worst idea in the history of America” ; “…Hollywood has finally proved they are out of their f---ing minds”; and so on. As a fan of both the documentary and the musical, I didn’t see what the fuss was about then, and I hope these knee-jerk naysayers have mellowed to the point where they can appreciate this thoroughly enjoyable, if heavily altered, adaptation.
Here’s why I don’t care about HBO horning in on our precious little documentary, and why you shouldn’t either. Yes, the Maysles’ film is full of its own charm and probably tells us plenty about the Beales’ past through their hypnotic ramblings alone, without having to rely on flashbacks or exposition. But the reason that film is so resonant is the Beales themselves, not their story or their accomplishments—they weren’t former presidents, great sports stars, famous musicians, or any of the other typical figures that are the subjects of so many documentaries and biopics. The Edies mean more to audiences as characters than as actual historical figures, as people who lived in this world. When we think of them, we think of Little Edie’s “costume of the day” or Big Edie cooking corn on her bedside hotplate—and more than anything, we think of the mesmerizing folie à deux on display throughout the film. When you get down to it, we aren’t interested in them because of what they gave to the world, or their place in history—we like them because of the film. And that’s why the musical adaptation worked: It recognized Big Edie and Little Edie as characters, and used them as a jumping-off point to weave a story with its roots in history but its heart in the Beales’ complicated, heartbreaking relationship. This film is just another extension of those characters, another entry in the canon. With each adaptation, the Beales take another step away from their actual historical selves and another toward iconic status, which exists in its own realm outside of historical accuracy. And that's probably how they would have wanted it.
And Edith Bouvier Beale and Edie Beale really couldn’t have asked for better cinematic counterparts (though undoubtedly both would think they could have done better). Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie both give gung-ho, detailed performances. I was especially surprised by Barrymore, who hasn’t really played anyone besides Drew Barrymore for about a decade now. Of course, it’s easier to disappear into a meaty, distinctive character like Little Edie than it is the string of anonymous giggly romantic leads she’s mostly confined herself to. Though Barrymore never manages to disappear completely into the character—one could argue that a star of her status is incapable of doing so—she takes on Little Edie’s voice and mannerisms without overt actorly-ness, and her naturally sunshine-y girlishness is especially effective during her time as young Edie. Her transition into the damaged, cynical Edie we see in the documentary isn’t seamless, but the restraint and skill she shows in her mimicry is admirable.
Lange perhaps has the more difficult role, as the Big Edie we see in the documentary is much shriller and harder to like, constantly ragging on her adult daughter as if she were an insolent child. But even in the documentary, we see moments of affection toward Little Edie, such as when her mother compliments her dancing or her looks, and Lange incorporates this into her interpretation of a younger Edith, giving her a doting air that’s genuine, if marred by a fair bit of jealousy and co-dependence. It’s interesting to watch Lange play with the shadows of the version of Edith we see in the documentary—especially in her voice, which she reduces to an operatic coo that believably transitions into shrill harping as she aged—giving sympathy to the character without stripping her of the glaring faults and insecurities that would poison her relationship with her daughter.
HBO’s Grey Gardens exists in a strange middle ground between the as-you-see-it documentary and the fantastical (by nature) stage musical. As previously mentioned, it takes several cues from the musical in its depiction of the Beales’ lives in the first half of the century—perhaps most notably the blatant homosexuality of Big Edie’s companion and accompanist, George “Gould” Strong, whose family maintains that he was straight, suggesting that he and Edith Bouvier Beale were making another sort of beautiful music together during his tenure at Grey Gardens. However, the film also gives audiences a good look at the goings-on during the filming of the documentary, faithfully recreating several iconic scenes before pulling back to the reactions of the Maysles’ (played by Arye Gross and Justin Louis). It also scrubs out several elements from both iterations, such as young handyman/corn aficionado Jerry and Major Bouvier, who played a large role in both the musical and Big Edie’s real life, largely cutting her out of his will for her eccentric behavior. (The Major seems to have been conflated with Big Edie’s husband, Phelan Beale, creating a single glowering presence controlling her heart and purse strings.)
In place of those stories, we’re treated to a glimpse into Little Edie’s life in New York, particularly her encounters with her married beau Julius “Cap” Krug (Daniel Baldwin, looking more like Alec with every passing frame) and the producer that supposedly promised her her big break, Max Gordon. While the novelty of seeing the young “Body Beautiful” Beale brassily storming through East Hampton and New York, leaving a trail of shattered monocles* in her wake, is intriguing, it feels a little manipulative, a purposefully wobbly foundation constructed with the intent of facilitating a dramatic, climactic breakdown for Barrymore.
Little Edie’s return to Gray Gardens following the dissolution of her relationship with Krug and the death of her father is perhaps the film’s biggest stumble as far as dramatic license goes. I’ve always imagined Little Edith’s descent into the fragile character we see in the documentary to be a gradual thing, the result of spending nearly three decades slowly suffocating. In the film, however, it’s treated as a “straw that breaks the camel’s back” scenario, complete with Barrymore tearing through the house searching for scissors to chop off her rapidly disappearing hair (the result of a stress condition that would leave Little Edie bald and with a fondness for turbans). So much of the first half of the film is spent laying out Little Edie’s dislike for life at Grey Gardens and her desire to become a famous dancer that this little breakdown feels superfluous and a little cheesy. Not saying that it’s out of character for the dramatic Edie to do such a thing, but it’s more interesting to watch her insecurities play out in front of her mother and the Maysles than in a melodramatic breakdown.
Most of the liberties taken with the story are much more successful, however, and a few are outright fascinating, such as the “raids”(as Little Edie called them) on Grey Gardens and a subsequent visit from Jackie Kennedy. Albert Maysles has said that his documentary didn’t do justice to the state that Grey Gardens was in during filming, and that was after Jackie bowed to public pressure and paid to have the house brought up to code. Seeing how far the Beales let the manor sink into disrepair—especially contrasted with the vision of it at the height of its splendor that we see in the film’s first half—is a remarkable visualization of something that has heretofore only been depicted in press clippings. And the visit from Jackie—played by uncanny look-alike Jeanne Tripplehorn—brings to life her tense relationship with Little Edie, which was only hinted at in the documentary. Glimpses like these, regardless of historical accuracy, make the Beales’ plight feel more layered and real, filling in the gaps between the mysterious offhand comments made in the documentary.
The film’s relationship with the documentary is an interesting one. Writer-director Michael Sucsy is obviously a devoted fan of the Maysles’ film, lovingly recreating several iconic moments and peppering in references throughout. (Perhaps one of my favorite thing about Grey Gardens is how it brings lines and details from the documentary into fictionalized moments: Jackie noticing the cat peeing on Edith’s portrait; a younger Edith using the Irish accent on the phone that we hear her use in the documentary; Little Edie laying out newspaper to sit on during Jackie’s visit instead of during the birthday party scene that was excised; and so on.) But it takes an interesting view of the Beales’ role in the documentary. The question of whether or not the Beales were being exploited by the Maysles is always brought up in discussions of Grey Gardens, and not without reason, as the two women were clearly troubled. The HBO film presents them as much shrewder characters, though, asking the filmmakers about profit shares and contracts. In the scene where Little Edie delivers her “best costume for the day” monologue, the film keeps rolling, so to speak, showing her coming back to ask, “Al, was that good, do you want me to do that again?” It’s obvious that both Beales, Little Edie in particular, are consciously performing for the cameras throughout the documentary, but seeing it addressed so overtly takes a little of the charm away from what at least feel like spontaneous moments.
Still, overall the film does right by its subjects. More importantly, though, it’s incredibly engaging and enjoyable to watch, which will hopefully point curious audiences toward the documentary. As entertaining as it is to see the outsized characters that “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” have become over time, it’s always worthwhile to go back and see the real-life characters they actually were.
*Shattered monocle reference in honor of Nathan Rabin, Grey Gardens superfan.
• I can’t believe I rambled on for nearly 2,000 words without mentioning the costumes! Good lord, the costumes were gorgeous! I covet each and every one of young Little Edie’s outfits (especially the hooded number pictured above), and maybe even a couple of her latter-day ones as well.
• The costumes were great. The oldface makeup on the other hand…. Ehhh….
• I thought it was interesting to see Little Edie’s brothers, Phelan and Bouvier, as kids at their mother’s party, being brought up in the same “bohemian” environment as their sister, but going on to lead such different lives. I can’t decide if it was meant as a comment on the expectations placed on women vs. men at the time, or if it was just supposed to be funny to see a little fat kid wearing a feathered hat and being his mother’s ashtray attendant.
• What did you think of Little Edie’s “happy ending”? I’m conflicted. While it felt a little too tidy, I’m glad that the film addressed that Edie did eventually escape Grey Gardens—though I think just having the post-script without seeing her triumphant return to the stage might have felt a little more genuine.