Grey Gardens sticks with you. I don’t know when I first saw the 1976 documentary, probably within the last couple years. I only got to see half of it, as something intervened, but the images I saw haunted me. Here were a gray-haired mother and her middle-aged daughter, both who had once led wealthy, privileged lives, living in a squalid, decaying 28-room house in the Hamptons with a myriad of cats and raccoons.
Albert and David Maysles are the unobtrusive documentary film makers who captured the images as the two women lived their daily lives and told their stories. In the documentary, the mother, Big Edie, constantly reminds us that she had been a singer, and when the daughter, Little Edie, lets us know she was going to be on the stage and gives us an example of her talent, Big Edie belittles her.
Did it make a difference that Big Edie was the aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis? I don’t know.
Little Edie reminds me of a dysfunctional Unsinkable Molly Brown. She’s lost all her hair and so uses an array of inventive head coverings—sometimes she uses a sweater, sometimes a shirt that she wraps around and ties with the arms. The rest of her wardrobe is equally inventive. She might wrap a tablecloth around her or wear a skirt upside down. She’s buoyant in the face of her mother’s caustic criticisms and upbeat in spite of the garbage and decay all around her. The mystery is that she doesn’t just leave, except that her mother won’t leave, and she won’t leave her mother.
I was marginally aware that HBO had done a movie based on this documentary starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. We don’t have HBO, but when I saw it on sale in Costco, I picked it up, wondering how they were going to do anything that could be better than the original documentary. It’s not better; it’s different in a wow! kind of a way.
Michael Sucsy and Patricia Rozema have written a great script, weaving pre- and post-documentary story lines in with scenes from the documentary. Michael Sucsy directs. Drew Barrymore plays Little Edie and nails it, and Jessica Lange embodies Big Edie. They both age thirty-five years in the picture. The story lines showing them as young, vibrant socialites sent me to the internet to see if I could find actual pictures of the women when they were young. I did, and the movie got them right.
I’m of two minds about which a person should see first, the documentary or the HBO movie. I think the documentary. There are snippets of the documentary on the special features portion of the movie, but a person needs to see the whole thing to really get to know and care about these ladies. After seeing the documentary, the movie reveals the pathos in the way Big Edie talks about Mr. Beale and lets you know who her accompanist and ‘that married man’ were. The movie also shows Big Edie’s redemption and Little Edie’s triumph.
Yeah, watch the movie second.
Below are pictures of Big Edie Beale (in what looks like a wedding veil) and Little Edie. I found them on the internet.
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