'Grey Gardens' portrays a household gone to seed
Drew Barrymore, left, and Jessica Lange portray Little Edie and Big Edie in HBO's new version of "Grey Gardens."
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The lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, would seem the stuff of a movie-of-the-week were they not already the subjects of a 1975 documentary, "Grey Gardens," and a Broadway musical of the same title.
Even so, HBO takes a shot at the heartbreaking story of two strong, wildly eccentric women who, in an era before reality became entertainment for the masses, allowed themselves to be put on display.
Perhaps lacking the self-awareness to say "no" to filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" became the subjects of an iconic documentary that chronicled the sad lives of a mother and daughter living, like ghosts, in a crumbling mansion by the sea.
It's a tragedy of compare-and-contrast. The HBO film (8 p.m. Saturday) cuts between the 1930s, when life was charmed, and the early 1970s, when they were living out their lives together at Grey Gardens, shuffling among the scattered piles of newspapers and trash stuffed behind furniture. Cats -- there were eventually more than 300 -- roam freely, using chairs for litter boxes. A raccoon emerges from a hole in the plaster on a staircase wall.
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday, HBO.
How they fell into such chaos is never quite explained, in any version of the story. Mental illness? Despair? Despite the subject matter and the squalor of their living conditions, the Beales come across as cheerful older ladies, happy to discuss their views on life with the filmmakers.
Both women considered themselves extraordinary talents; Big Edie was a singer who "infected" her child with a love of performing on stage.
And doors were certainly open to them, although dwindling finances would eventually affect the whole family. The aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Beales were once firmly ensconced in East Coast high society.
Early in the HBO film, Big Edie (Jessica Lange) chides her stubborn daughter (Drew Barrymore) at a debutante ball when the latter says she's in no hurry to get married.
"If you can't get married, how on Earth can you take care of yourself?" asks Big Edie.
Despite being romantically linked to many rich, powerful men such as Howard Hughes and Joe Kennedy, it's Little Edie's New York City fling with a married man that breaks her heart. Julius "Cap" Krug (Daniel Baldwin), the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is referenced vaguely in the Maysles' documentary. In the HBO film, he's a smooth-talker who buys Little Edie the fur coat that's also an icon in the documentary.
It must be said that viewing "Grey Gardens" without prior knowledge of the Beales' story would make it easier to like the HBO version. The documentary is such a cult classic, and the musical, which earned Christine Ebersole a Tony Award for her outstanding portrayal of a young Big Edie and the older Little Edie, was also well-received by fans despite taking certain liberties with the facts.
Michael Sucsy directs an HBO version that takes a little of this, a little of that, in building toward a (sort-of) happy ending that's hard to swallow.
Dispersed throughout are snippets of re-creations of scenes from the documentary ("Mother wanted me to come out in a kimono, so we had quite a fight" says Little Edie in a whisper, while pointing out the practicality of yet another bizarre outfit pieced together with an upside-down skirt, shawl, pantyhose and an elaborate brooch).
Barrymore does a pretty good job capturing Little Edie's unusual accent, sort of a staunch, square-jawed Kate Hepburn. Lange as Big Edie has probably the more difficult role, as much of the later scenes feature her lying in bed. Earlier, there's a whiff of desperation as Big Edie tries to hold onto a husband who would eventually divorce her as well as her beloved companion and accompanist.
They would not stay, but Little Edie did. The movie shows the mother deliberately sabotaging an (ill-advised) relationship in order to bring Little Edie back to Grey Gardens, but who's to say what really kept her there? Or what their mental states were after so many years of isolation, with the cats for company?
"It's very difficult to keep the line between past and present," Little Edie says. "Awfully difficult."
First Published April 16, 2009 12:00 am