I was pleased to have the opportunity to see Grey Gardens (2009), the HBO film about “Big” Edie and "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale, the now-iconic subjects of the Albert and David Maysles’s documentary from 1976. The Edies were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy, and lived, in increasing squalor, in the once-opulent Grey Gardens mansion in East Hampton. The Maysles’s documentary, regarded as a classic by some, captured the theatricality of the women’s personalities and the spectacle of their relationship.
Directed by Michael Sucsy and co-written by Sucsy and (surprisingly enough) Patricia Rozema, the dramatised Grey Gardens bears the usual HBO hallmarks: lavish production values, prime roles for some these-days-underused actresses (Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, here), scenes of genuine insight, and other moments of clunking obviousness. Its structure is artful: the film juxtaposes incidents from the Edies's lives in the 1940s/50s (“Big” Edie’s divorce from her husband Phelan; “Little” Edie’s frustrated bids for stardom) with scenes of the filming of the documentary in the 1970s. More than a gleeful game of "compare and contrast," the sequencing offers a witty demonstration of "Little" Edie’s oft-quoted comment about the difficulty of maintaining "the line between the past and the present."
The film-making conceit, though, turns out to be more interesting than anything that is actually done with it. The Maysles’s methods and motivations for making the documentary remain unexplored; as depicted here, the brothers (played by Ayre Gross and Justin Louis) just stand around with boom and camera in hand, exchanging inscrutable smiles. There’s also something rather problematic about the new film’s unequivocal celebration of the documentary, which is presented here simply as an unvarnished record of the truth which garnered universal acclaim.(Not so: Helen MacKintosh, for one, accused the Maysles of filming the Edies “in the most offensive of ways” - a valid enough point.)
But where the new movie does succeed is in its presentation - and contextualisation - of the women’s complex and contradictory alliance, a relationship defined by mutual dependency, antipathy and affection. The movie seems to begin, conventionally, by presenting “Little” Edie as a victim of parental oppression (both paternal and maternal), but this perspective becomes much more nuanced as the film progresses. And the actresses simply couldn’t be bettered. Barrymore’s moving, intelligent performance could be a career-best - she succeeds in making sense of “Little” Edie’s slide into eccentricity without editorialising on it - while the incomparable Lange unleashes her formidable brand of vulnerability, tenacity and humour to haunting effect. (There’s more than a touch of the Tennessee Williams heroines she’s played so memorably on stage here; clumping around with a stick (in very convincing old-age make up) in the 1970s scenes, one senses a Suddenly, Last Summer in her future.) The ending - with a rather contrived reconciliation scene and “Little” Edie basking in her long-awaited fame after the movie’s premiere - is too cosy. But, between them, Barrymore and Lange turn this Grey Gardens into more than an interesting supplement to the original film and a compelling “duet” in its own right.