It takes serious moxie to make a feature film from an excellent documentary, especially one as cultishly beloved as Grey Gardens. But, hey, it worked for Milk, and dare I say, it works for the new HBO movie, premiering this Saturday night and starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
Like the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, this Grey Gardens zooms in on "Big Edie" (Lange) and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale (Barrymore), aunt and first cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The story follows the pair from their flossy socialite (if emotionally unstable) beginnings to the bizarre codepedence of little Edie's adults years, spent living with her mother in their decaying Hamptons mansion, surrounded by diseased cats, feral raccoons, and armoire-size mounds of filth.
The making of the documentary is a plot point in HBO's rendition, so die-hard fans will appreciate the movie's ability to illuminate the once dark and murky parts of the Beales' story. For what I thought, read more.
Speaking of die-hard fans, I suspect Barrymore is one of them: she turns out an eerily accurate portrayal of Little Edie that is authentic, disarming, and far from impersonation. At times, I forgot it was Barrymore, which is something I've never thought before about her acting. Her face perfectly conveys Edie's flightiness and fear, as she feels obliged to stay with her mother yet lacks the wherewithal to live another life.
Like the documentary, Grey Gardens succeeds by not being strictly linear, flashing backward and forward to form the story's beginning, middle, and end. As Big Edie's husband leaves and the meager allowance runs dries, Little Edie's shaky big city dreams are dashed; on the night she returns, her mother's first question is, "Did you get the cat food?"
In Jackie O. accents, the movie answers a question asked by anyone who has seen the documentary: how did it get this bad? Watching the HBO movie, we learn that it got even worse before their famous cousin (portrayed in a cameo by Jeanne Tripplehorn) bails the Beales out. Unfortunately, but perhaps expectedly, the updated film can't match the raw masterpiece of the original. In its musical score and its vision, Grey Gardens lacks the artfulness of its source. To see this movie without also seeing the documentary would be like not reading Lolita because you already saw the movie. Both offer very different interpretations and, taken together, they form a fascinating biography.
Photos courtesy of HBO