HBO's Grey Gardens premieres on Saturday, and while critics praised Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange's performances, they found watching a feature to get the real story behind a documentary a little odd.
Grey Gardens, which will be shown on Saturday night, is based on the 1975 documentary of the same name about Jackie Kennedy's aunt and cousin, Big Edie (Jessica Lange) and Little Edie (Drew Barrymore). The classic documentary showed the women living in squalor in a decrepit East Hampton mansion in the 1970s, and told the story of their youth through photographs. The dramatized version recreates parts of the documentary, but also flashes back to each woman's youth in the 1930s and 1950s, to show how each had dreams of going into show business, but wound up eating out of tin cans and sharing their mansion with cats, raccoons and fleas.
Most critics were impressed by Lange and Barrymore's performances, but disagreed over which actress did a better job pulling off her Edie. However, several critics disagreed with the HBO giving the film a happy ending and didn't feel that the fictionalized account of the Beales past was an improvement on the story told in the original documentary. Below, we take a look at the reviews for Grey Gardens.
I emerged from the screening of Grey Gardens blinking with confusion at the ass-backwardness of it all. A documentary often fleshes out the back story of a real-life event. Yet here I was watching a feature film in order to get the "truth" behind a cinéma vérité classic ... It's a strange project, working backward from the snippets of a life as gathered from a documentary, developing a narrative from the flotsam and jetsam of two not-quite-there creatures' competing memories.
That decrepitude has been widely fetishized, and so it's not surprising to see such lavish attention paid here to costumes and set designs. Everything is lushly dilapidated and distressed in a most aesthetically pleasing way. First-time director Michael Sucsy has a good eye for shambles: I particularly remember the tableau of mother and daughter in strange black mourning outfits listening to JFK's funeral on the radio, sitting primly on a bed swamped by garbage and cats. The camera devours the decay — a tree is growing through the ceiling! A cat is peeing behind the painting of Big Edie propped on the floor! But the women who once lived in luxury treat it all with a certain vagueness, as though the outside world barely registers in comparison to the intensity of their inner lives.
But both fictional Edies are so entrancing as the oldest versions of themselves that the movie's slow, lengthy detours to the 1930s and 1950s are almost a distraction. Even the brief flashback to the early '70s, when Mrs. Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is driven by the tabloid exposés of her relatives' living conditions to visit them at Grey Gardens and finance repair work, is a little long. The acting is compelling, and the costumes are sumptuous, but the staging is static, too Masterpiece Theater for the story at hand.
Beyond Big Edie's extraordinary attachment to the property, the movie doesn't fully convey who the enabler and the enabled were in this co-dependent existence. The two Edies are also, as one says, an "acquired taste," so their overly mannered speech and affectations — coupled with the ravages of Bill Corso's uncomfortable-looking makeup, aging the stars 40 years — require a bit of getting used to. Barrymore and Lange nevertheless deliver vibrant, wonderfully theatrical turns, with Barrymore in particular seeming delighted to sink her teeth into a character this meaty after a blur of relatively forgettable romantic comedies. That's not to say Grey Gardens is without romance, but it's an unorthodox one — in essence a love story between these two women who take refuge from the world in each other's company.
Herself the survivor of famous-family dysfunction, Barrymore resembles Edie in both her daffy grin and pop-eyed girlishness. As the fiftysomething Edie, her mimicry is impressive, her freckled arms slack, eyes wild with wasted glee. But whenever this movie re-creates Edie's youth, the documentary's anxious power-its air of poisoned nostalgia, its bold wallow in mental illness-is reduced to simpler themes. Barrymore's Edie is a rich rebel who might've been fine if her parents had let her breathe and be. At moments-as when Edie crashes a producer's dinner and his companions stare-a weirder character emerges, an unstable beauty boiling over with Wasp chutzpa. But when Edie descends into "madness," hacking her hair, raw eccentricity shrivels into an adolescent crisis.
Jessica Lange disappears more completely; beneath her Big Edie old-age makeup, she gives off great sparks of wit and emotion. (She's harder to take in flashbacks, if only because-there's no way to say this nicely-her face is now as immobile as a mask.)
The movie is a unique character study and the performances are mesmerizing. But it's also sad. Sad that these women felt forced to distance themselves from society to be free. Sad because women who didn't "fit in" were made to seem crazy and then actually became crazy due to the isolation. Grey Gardens on the surface comes off as a love story between a mother and daughter - yet don't miss the unique lessons on class and gender roles that still seem to stick with us.
Director/co-producer/co-writer Michael Sucsy gets their plight, and he's unflinching about exploiting it. But it's hard to say he exposes the heart of his characters; Little Edie's motivation remains a mystery. She might have left home at any time, as she notes. But she didn't, her mother shoots back. Why not? Unfortunately, this last mystery is beyond this version (or perhaps any version) of Grey Gardens to fully explore. And that, ultimately, is the scariest revelation of all.
It isn't even enough that two quality actresses, Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, play the Beales for this production. Lange is fine as the senior Edie, but Barrymore, for reasons not entirely her fault, seems off her game. In the 1975 Maysles brothers' documentary that turned the Beales and their home into a sort of cult fascination, Little Edie came across as a caricature. While some of that was intentional and some was not, the image became so indelible that watching Barrymore play her now feels like parody, imitating Little Edie's self-portrait without finding anything fresh behind it.
Lange is flat-out extraordinary as she reveals the extent of Big Edie's big narcissism without demonizing her. As the young Big Edie, Lange evokes the broken personality of a woman in her prime who aspired to be a star but who became a bored wife and moth ... Lange hams it up in Grey Gardens, without plummeting into parody.
Little Edie is the trickier role, since she's both an angry extrovert and a victim, and her eccentricities increasingly take on the flavor of mental illness as she grows older. She dresses in upside-down skirts and, because her hair falls out from stress, she wears dramatic scarves on her head. Barrymore does her darnedest to be poignant, and I was impressed as she let herself go further than usual into her performance. And yet I never forgot I was watching Barrymore trying hard, especially in contrast to Lange's effortlessness. Her accent wanders, her older-woman prosthetic sits awkwardly on her face in the 1970s scenes, and she too-often projects fragility where she should be rebellious and rawr instead.
Both women do a wonderful job of mimicking the documentary's scenes and cadences, and an equally good job of ratcheting the nuttiness down for the earlier, saner years. Barrymore has the showier role and gives the more riveting performance, but that takes nothing away from Lange, who captures the smothering selfishness that was the flip side of Big Edie's determination to live life on her own terms.
And yet there's an emptiness at the center of the story that Grey Gardens can't quite fill. These sad, probably sick, women hold your interest, yet remain held at a distance. Try as you might to find meaning here, the Beales' decline seems to have no deeper message to convey. These aren't heroes brought down by social conventions. They collapse, in the end, because they cared about no one but themselves and were able to live with no one but each other.