These days, it’s almost quaint to question someone’s readiness for the spotlight. We toss lovelorn strippers, octuplets and prepubescent Disney stars in front of the camera with barely a whiff of informed consent. But back in 1975, when the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis were filmed in their East Hampton mansion in 1975 by documentarians Albert and David Maysles, privacy was, quaintly, still a given for most. Audiences gawked at textbook eccentrics “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale in the original Grey Gardens, especially the fifty-something daughter, whose aristocratic drawl was at odds with her squalid surroundings and name-in-lights dreams. Morbid fascination begot camp, and by the 21st century the film had become a Rufus Wainwright song and a snappy cultural reference on Gilmore Girls. It’s difficult to imagine that the Beale women understood the impetus behind all the attention, and, paternalistically, most audiences probably felt that was for the best.
The new HBO film production relieves some of the ickiness about peeping into the cat-infested Grey Gardens manse. For one thing, the ladies themselves have passed on (Big Edie in 1977, Little Edie just seven years ago); this time we’re looking at Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, portraying the scorned wife and frustrated daughter across four decades, slowly collapsing into impoverished seclusion.
Both women do remarkable impressions of the aged Beales. Barrymore, especially, shows acting chops that recent flicks like He’s Just Not That Into You failed to utilize; she captures how Little Edie’s singular style was not in spite of her fragile sensibility and circumstances, but often because of them. Like the 2006 Broadway show anchored by Christine Ebersole, however, it’s the flashbacks to the 1930s, when the mother and daughter’s codependency (and possible untreated depression or other mental affliction) first emerged, that are most fascinating. The film tries too hard to turn the Beale story into one of triumph, and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Jackie O. turn is pretty much unnecessary.
Are pretty costumes and pitch-perfect impressions a good enough reason to reenact a documentary? Probably not, but the Edies’ transformation into fictionalized, glamorized characters started long ago, and their life stories could do worse than this classy, respectful production.
Grey Gardens premieres Sat 18 at 8pm on HBO.
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