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The Fall of the House of Beale: An Advance Review of HBO's "Grey Gardens"

"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It's awfully difficult." - Little Edie Beale

It's hard to imagine, in age where Susan Boyle can go from obscurity to worldwide fame in a matter of days (thanks to things like YouTube and Twitter), that prior to the advent of this technology, fame was usually a hell of a lot harder to grasp.

Two of last century's most enigmatic and compelling cult figures were discovered in much a similar way as Britain's Got Talent's Boyle. The eccentric Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, were propelled into superstardom following the release of Albert and David Maysles' 1973 documentary film Grey Gardens, which showed the mother and daughter argue, sing, flirt, dance, and reminisce about the past as they struggled to survive in their raccoon-infested, decaying mansion in East Hampton.

Over the last thirty-five years, the Beales have taken on a cult status among the viewers of the original Grey Gardens documentary, who have fallen in love with the plucky and unique mother-daughter pair who live their life looking to find beauty even as they are surrounded by so much filth and poverty. Having seen and loved the documentary, I was more than intrigued by HBO's Grey Gardens, premiering tomorrow evening, which uses the documentary as a jumping off point to explore the Edies' lives and, like Little Edie said, blurs the line between the past and present in a rather intoxicating way.

HBO's sensational Grey Gardens, written by Michael Sucsy and Patricia Rozema and directed by Sucsy, stars Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the doyennes of the titular Grey Gardens, a formerly beautiful East Hampton estate that became infamous in the 1970s for its crumbling squalor and filth. Recreating some of the documentary's most memorable moments (such as when Little Edie tells filmmakers Albert and David Mayles--played here by Arye Gross and Justin Louis--about her "costume for today"), the film uses these moments to fill in the blanks missing from the original documentary, traveling back to 1936 when both Beale women were young and bright and filled with joie de vivre and beautifully setting up their descent into co-dependence and, some might argue, madness. Additionally, the film manages to show the audience what happened after the cameras stopped rolling at Grey Gardens, following Little Edie after the New York premiere of the film.

For fans of the documentary, which covered but six weeks in the lives of the Beales, these moments give HBO's Grey Gardens added weight. The film is able to delve deep into Little Edie's past, exploring her relationship with a married man, Julius "Cap" Krug (Daniel Baldwin), the former Secretary of the Interior, and her losing battle with alopecia (from which Little Edie tragically loses her hair) while also sharing the story of the boozy former singer Big Edie's separation from her straitlaced husband Phelan (Ken Howard) and her relationship with her accompanist George "Gould" Strong (Malcolm Gets). The film is also able to dramatize the traumatic investigation of the squalid Grey Gardens by the Suffolk County Department of Health... and its eventual rescue by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn), after the women's plight becomes national news headlines.

What's remarkable about the Beales is their co-dependent relationship, which the film goes to great lengths to showcase. It's clear that these two women love one another and perhaps hate one another too. The claustrophobic conditions at Grey Gardens force them into a sort of hellish existence, where the women could argue about blame and guilt for the rest of their days. When Little Edie says that the only way she is going to leave Grey Gardens is if one of them dies, you know she's not just posturing for the cameras but is deadly serious. There's a joy with the two women as you watch them crack the other up repeatedly but there's also an innate sadness as well: these two are trapped by their mutual need for the other. Together, they're not two women but two limbs on the same body. In allowing Grey Gardens to fall into compete and utter disrepair, so too do they allow their dreams to wither and die, becoming ever more reclusive as they pull themselves away from society and into a dream world within the house.

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange are breathtaking in their roles as Little and Big Edie Beale. Playing these two women over a period of forty years is no ease feat but both actresses go above and beyond the call of duty to show the roots of their future situation and their love/hate relationship with one another. Given how well known both of the women are that they are playing, Barrymore and Lange nail both the vocal inflections and facial cues and their jaw-dropping performances are aided by some truly staggering prosthetics that accompany the women as they age. (Just look at how the makeup completely captures the crepe-like quality of Little Edie's arms or the lines around Big Edie's multi-colored eyes.)

It's truly a credit to both that they disappear completely into these roles and it is hard at times to discern between Barrymore and Lange and my mental recall of the two women depicted in the original documentary. There's a sense of shared history and rawness of emotion between Barrymore and Lange that's rarely seen on celluloid as they capture the very essence of these cult figures.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Big Love's Jeanne Tripplehorn gives a memorable turn as Jackie Kennedy Onassis, imbuing the former First Lady with a fragile sadness, a palpable sense of loss, and a shock at how the beautiful house she visited as a child has become little more than a decrepit ruin. Likewise Ken Howard turns in a powerful performance as the uber-conservative Phelan Beale, disapproving of his wife's zeal for singing, throwing parties, or spoiling their daughter rather than finding her a suitable husband, telling her that it is her only purpose on this earth.

Sucsy's direction is lush and atmospheric and he manages to capture both the early grandeur of Grey Gardens as well as its claustrophobic and fetid later years and he dazzlingly stages many of the original documentary's most memorable bits without making them feel like recreations but genuine moments unfolding for the first time. Aided in this is the gorgeous musical score by Rachel Portman, whose music gives the visuals a haunting quality.

My only complaint of the otherwise flawless production is one scene towards the very end of Grey Gardens in which the relationship and issues between Big Edie and Little Edie are tied up a little too neatly for me and the picture attempts to come full circle in a way that's slightly too much on the nose. Rather than offer this melodramatic moment, I do wish that Sucsy and Rozema had instead left this conclusion to the audience's imagination as the moment is already encapsulated in the interactions between the Beales throughout the piece. But it's a quibble against a production that is powerfully rendered and overflowing with emotion.

Ultimately, Grey Gardens is a remarkable piece of filmmaking about the love story between a mother and daughter that reinvents two wondrous women for a whole new generation unfamiliar with the Beales. Whether you have or haven't seen the original documentary on which it's based, this is one story you don't want to miss.

Grey Gardens premieres Saturday night at 8 pm ET/PT on HBO.


London Buddy said…
I am very excited to see this film version of GG. Having seen the musical version first, which also went back to their past to show how they might have ended up the way they did (with an amazing, spot on performance from Christine Ebersole as Little Edie) I then went back and watched the original documentry. Its hard to watch towards the end. They literally cannot live with or without the other. If you havn't seen the documentry, make sure you do! It's not in the list of 100 documentrys to see before you die, for nothing!

And tonight here in the UK we get one of the unseen episodes of Pushing Daisies, and its all about Olive's childhood. I can't wait!!
Bella Spruce said…
I saw the documentary for the first time a few months ago and became completely enchanted by Big and Little Edie. I'm so happy to hear that this film version has done them justice. Just from the previews, I have been extremely impressed by Barrymore and Lange's performances and now feel even more confident about it having read your excellent review. Thanks!

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