Ah, Grey Gardens.

How to explain the phenomenon to those of you who have never heard of it. I think first we must mention the Maylses brothers, Albert and David. It's their documentary film of 1975 that introduced the world properly to Big Edie and Little Edie. That's the two Edith Beales, a reclusive socialite mother and daughter of the same name who lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit mansion at 3 West End Road in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York. That's Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale - the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

Previous to the 1975 documentary, it was an article in the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York Magazine in 1971 and 1972 about their living conditions—their crumbling house was populated by cats, raccoons, fleas, didn't have running water and was full of rubbish and had failed a Suffolk County Health Department inspection - that alerted the world to the two eccentric recluses. The two women were about to be evicted when Jackie and her sister stepped in and funded the repair of the hovel so that it would pass the inspection.

Behind the withdrawl of the two women from modern society is a tale that symbolises the death of the American dream, particularly that promoted by the Kennedy administration, and the high society in which they circulated. It's a story about a daughter's insecurity and her mother's overbearing manipulation. Hopes, expectations, dreams as an actress and performer were all that Little Edie had and her family frowned upon those desires. Big Edie just wanted life to be one long party but the divorce by her husband put a stop to that and the money supply. Both women retired into a charming, frightening, illogical but fascinating eccentricity - Big Edie trenchantly refusing to leave Grey Gardens and retreating to a past where she was convinced she was a great signer and Little Edie conjuring up an alternative lifestyle with its own philosophy and outrageously surreal sense of fashion.

That's Grey Gardens.

Albert and John Maysles were fascinated by this fin de siecle American story and filmed a documentary about the Beales women, allowing them to tell their own story. The documentary became a highly acclaimed work in the Maysles long career as film documentarians. From it flowered a huge cult following for the Beales, particularly Little Edie, that has now fed into numerous books, audio recordings, a successful musical, festivals, conventions and now a dramatisation from HBO. Fans of Grey Gardens, and I count myself amongst them, really didn't know what to think when it was announced that Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange would play the pivotal roles of the two Edie Beales. Barrymore, in particular, would have to pull out the stops to match the sublime Christine Ebersole's performance as Little Edie in the Grey Gardens musical which I had the immense pleasure of seeing in New York in April 2007.

Transmitted on April 18th, 2009, Michael Sucsy's film has already been nominated for 17 Primetime Emmys. And it's very clear why. It doesn't dishonour the Beales story and attempts to expand, much as the musical did, on the lives of the two women prior to the decline of their fortunes and it's driven by two very accomplished performances from Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

The film does start with a very episodic structure, flashing between 1973 and the Maysles arrival at Grey Gardens and the shooting of the documentary and back to the house in all its glory in 1936. It provides a satisfying contrast between the squalor the two Edies had been reduced to and the very chic, full on glamour of the late 1930s, despite the Depression. The period detail is lovingly recreated by costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas and production designer Kalina Ivanov and it's fascinating to see how Little Edie didn't quite fit in with high society, her spirit already defined and how Big Edie kicked against the dour conservatism of her husband Phelan by hosting budget busting parties and shacking up with a gay composer, Gould Strong (the 'damn Ganymede' as Phelan refers to him). Even here both women are engaged in a power struggle to see who can carve out a career in the world of entertainment.

Flash forward to 1973 and Drew Barrymore is pretty much channeling the Little Edie you may have seen in the documentary. And it's not an easy game to pull off. Both ladies have vocal cadences that are hard to maintain, a weird mix of British received pronounciation and New York twang that's very difficult to get a grip on but is beguiling to hear. Barrymore nails it and it is very spooky because the lines between dramatic recreation and the Maysles documentary blur and overlap, particularly when Sucsy layers on grain and damage to the footage to represent what the Maysles shot.

Her fashion advice is also lovingly recreated and Barrymore disappears into the performance whilst demonstrating, "This is the best thing to wear for the day. You understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts, and the best thing is to wear pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. Then you have the pants under the skirt, and then you pull the stockings up over the pants underneath the skirt. And you can always take the skirt off and use it as a cape, so I think this is the best costume for the day. I have to think these things up, you know? " As Drew addresses the camera and huskily whispers to the filmmakers, "Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono, so we had quite a fight," you know she's made damn sure that Little Edie lives!

As Little Edie's ambitions are crushed by her interfering mother and father (they put a stop to her fling with the married Julian Krug and her musical ambitions) she seems to retreat into her own fantasy. Big Edie loses Gould and simply retreats into Grey Gardens. Lange is also rather stunning, catching the woman's flightiness in youth and then remarkably transforming into the cantankerous, withdrawn older Edie, catching her physicality brilliantly whether she's combing out her hair or peering at her beloved cats through retro, pebble like spectacles.

She captures the abandonment, the loneliness, the frustration and the wheedling, domineering influence over her brittle daughter. Both women are, as the film helpfully observes, 'an acquired taste'. Barrymore and Lange are great, often superb, but they have smoothed off the edges of the two women who appeared in the Maysles film, ranting and screeching at each other. Dare I say it, but they actually make the Beales endearing when in reality it was their baroque repulsiveness that was the source of fascination.

Sucsy gets the trash aesthetic spot on for the delapidated mansion which comes across as a peculiar haunted house and once the flashbacks to the 1930s dwindle the narrative settles into a linear progression that recounts Phelan's death, the Kennedy assassination and Jackie's visit to her relatives, having been alerted to their plight. Jeanne Tripplehorn is regal as Jackie and there's a laugh out loud moment when Little Edie starts bitching at her, claiming it should have been her that married into the Kennedy clan and snapping, 'Is it true that Jack Kennedy gave you gonorrhea?'

The coda of the film is placed in a sequence where the Maysles screen the documentary for the two women, Little Edie declaring, 'It's an artistic smash!' and believing it akin to the French New Wave, even though she's never seen any of the films of the Nouvelle Vague. It's here that we leave the Maysles documentary behind and move into melodrama. Mother and daughter fight over Little Edie's desire to attend the premiere and accusations come to a boiling point that cause Little Edie to run off to the beach but then have a change of heart as she spots Big Edie's missing favourite cat. All is forgiven. Little Edie goes to the premiere and gets her time in the spotlight. And if you're a great big soft nelly like me, you'll be sitting there with tears streaming down your face. I watched the film twice within a space of three or four days and still ended up blubbing. It may be melodrama and schmaltz but Barrymore and Lange provide such strong performances that it would seem churlish not to lap it up.

Hilariously, the film ends with a credit roll over a recreation of Little Edie's cabaret act as she murders 'Tea For Two', forgets half the lyrics and throws in her own bizarre choreography whilst wearing a suitably camp silky red outfit. Let the credits roll and you'll get a sweet little treat at the end as Little Edie bellows out 'No animals were harmed in the making of this film!' in her characteristic New England drawl. That takes care of the cats and the racoons then. If you are a Grey Gardens obsessive then you might feel this film takes too many liberties but as someone who does appreciate the original Maysles films and understands the cult appeal of Little Edie in particular I would say it is worthy of your attention despite the undefined emotional core of the story and the manner in which Sucsy wraps it up. Enjoy the Lange and Barrymore performances, the production design and the gorgeous music by Rachel Portman.

GREY GARDENS (HBO DVD 100211 - Region 1 - Released July 14th 2009 - Unrated)
Special features:
• Audio Commentary by Michael Sucsy, Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz
Grey Gardens: Then and Now

Official Site

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