I approached the HBO movie Grey Gardens with trepidation, since I loved the documentary by the Maysles and was unsure how they’d approach the material. It invites camp, but I always saw the Beales as sympathetic figures, and thankfully the movie does too. It doesn’t let the ladies off the hook for their eccentricity either, and this pair of shut-ins are colorful enough before the novelty of their relation to Jackie Kennedy is discovered.
If you don’t know the story, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” were mother and daughter living on an estate in the Hamptons called Grey Gardens. The mother and father became estranged, and after he died she lived at the estate on a meager trust; she had become agoraphobic, though it is never called such. She’d hold parties at the house, and send little Edie on errands once no one would deliver. Little Edie envied her socialite cousins the Bouviers, such as Jacqueline, and dreamt of an acting, or dancing and singing career. She pursued it in New York City, but it never came to pass.
She suffered from alopecia, and took to wearing headwraps to hide her hair loss. Once Jackie became the First Lady, the paparazzi descended and eventually discovered the Beales, living in a decrepit old house full of cats and raccoons. Jackie paid to have the house cleaned of garbage and repaired, but two documentarians, Albert and David Maysles of Gimme Shelter fame, came to document these eccentric characters. I was introduced to the documentary by my friend Emma, and when it was released by Criterion. For years it was a camp classic; diva nerds loved that Jackie O had such tawdry relatives, and Little Edie was a bizarre counterpoint to Jacqueline’s classy demeanor. This was the ramshackle shed behind Camelot where the embarrassing relations lived.
Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange play the Beales, and we flash back to their better days, to see the slow descent into reclusion. Little Edie was always an extrovert and unreserved; we see her audition before a producer while he’s at a business luncheon. And slowly, her chances to break free of her mother disappear, and she becomes trapped in Grey Gardens. Jessica Lange is fantastic as the reclusive Big Edie, who goes from a boisterous party thrower to a bedridden cat lady once her paramours cannot tolerate one more wrinkle.
The two actresses are both fantastic; they had the Maysles documentary and another made from the outtakes, The Beales of Grey Gardens, to study and they are perfect. Drew Barrymore has the more difficult job, as Little Edie is practically unbelievable as a person. You really ought to rent the 1975 Grey Gardens to check her out. Her story eventually gets a happy ending, but only after a long imprisonment under her mother’s thrall. I highly recommend the HBO movie whether you’ve seen the documentaries or not; if you’ve seen it already, hunt down the originals to see just how good the performances are.
I revisited the Maysles documentary it made me wonder how much it influenced Errol Morris when he made Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida; they share the “give ’em enough rope” method of Grey Gardens, where the camera seems to fade away, like a fly on the wall. It’s common now, but leaving the camera around until the subjects became comfortable, and vulnerable, was a far cry from the father of the documentary’s nearly staged scenes- such as the basking shark hunt in Man of Aran.
Instead we get the slow realization of the bars on Little Edie’s cage, the poison from her mother’s mouth. A faded rose whose thorns encircled her daughter, keeping her from growing taller or brighter than herself. It’s depressing, but just as powerful as any Oscar-winning drama. The second film, The Beales of Grey Gardens, released in 2006 from remaining footage, is lighter in tone and less oppressive. It makes for an entertaining film in itself, but I’d definitely watch the original first. If it starts to depress you, remember that Little Edie eventually got her own dance revue and lived the rest of her life in Florida on her own, after her mother’s passing.