Grey Gardens fits perfectly into the HBO niche of star-studded biopics where A-list talent immerse themselves in imaginative impersonations while juicy morsels about the rich and famous are tastefully doled out to premium cable subscribers. This docudrama also rises above its origins by commenting on the nature of fame and adoration – no mean feat in the age of reality television, when celebrity is as fleeting as it is suffocating. By tracing the backstory of Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange) and her daughter Little Edie (Drew Barrymore), the stranger than fiction subjects of the landmark 1976 documentary from David and Albert Maysles, writer/director Michael Sucsy and screenwriter Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) explore the origins of the observed life as performance art, and the embrace of artifice as alternate reality. The bickering eccentrics captured by the Maysles’ compassionate gaze are at once horrifying and enchanting, formerly wealthy socialites existing in oddball isolation in the squalid ruins of the Hamptons high life.
This Grey Gardens recreates what the Maysles saw, but explores the before as much as the after, revealing the troubled Beales as the glorious hostess and shining debutante they once were, and watches them slide down the slippery slope of bitter poverty and furious interdependency. Much is made of the Beale women’s difficulties adhering to social norms even before the Maysles brothers inadvertently made them into reality stars (if not the first, then certainly two of the most enduring), yet the makers of this probing fiction film carefully skirt any mention of mental illness. They focus instead on the split in perception between how the Edies see themselves (as idiosyncratic yet regal) and how the outside world views them (as decrepit bag ladies). Although Sucsy and Rozema don’t explicitly make the case, the continuing pop culture fascination with the Beales – including a Broadway musical as well as this biopic – only demonstrates that dereistic thinking won out in the end.
Jessica Lange is more fully realized as the glamorous younger Edith (she can’t quite master the death rattle rumble of the elderly Big Edie’s voice), but there’s also an amazing poignancy to her faded queen of Grey Gardens, even when her words are laced with malice. But it’s Drew Barrymore who gives a transfiguring, career-making performance (like Angelina Jolie in HBO’s Gia). By fully inhabiting Little Edie’s mottled skin, she embodies both the possibility and ruination of a thwarted daughter. After shying away from singing in the 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You, Barrymore now throws caution to the wind, and the result is a humdinger. Drew’s kooky song and dance numbers aren’t just musical mimicry, they’re a joyous expression of Edie’s irrepressible optimism, bursts of buoyant exuberance powerful enough to keep the ocean of despair at bay.
Review by Serena Donadoni
First aired April 18, 2009 on HBO
Grey Gardens is available on Amazon Prime