Let’s start this review by getting one thing clear: I am a huge fan of the documentary Grey Gardens. I quote it to myself every time I get dressed. (“Hmmm…I wonder what the best costume for the day will be?”). I plan to wear sweaters and towels on my head the second my hair starts to thin (if not sooner). And Little Edie is probably one of my favorite characters ever, real or fictional. So, when I first heard about the making of a docu-drama version of their story, starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, I was highly skeptical. My fears were tempered when I saw the film’s initial trailers, and Barrymore’s admirable impersonation of Edie, and some excitement over seeing the film grew. So, when I got tickets to a sneak preview screening at the AMC on Van Ness this past Tuesday I donned a head scarf and scampered to the theater eagerly, the VMI Marching Song playing in my head.
But anyone harboring any jealousy over those who got to see the movie in advance, and in a theater, need not. First off, it took them about 10 minutes after the movie started before they finally turned the theater lights off. Second, I don’t know what’s up with the AMC’s projectors, but the image throughout the entire film was horribly dark. It was like watching a movie while wearing one’s darkest Jackie O. sunglasses. And that’s a crying shame because one of the film’s best aspects is its set design and costumes, things we just couldn’t see in all their glory the way the movie was presented. I’ll probably have to watch it again on HBO just so I can actually see it.
The film starts off with a bang, with Drew Barrymore doing a dead-on impersonation of Little Edie’s dance to the aforementioned VMI Marching Song. It was clearly made by people who share a love of the documentary. The story is told with a back-and-forth chronology, beginning with the year that the documentary was made, and flashing back to Little Edie’s debutante ball. It continues to move back and forth in time, until settling on the year the Maysles film was released.
Anyone who has seen the doc no doubt ponders what the Edies’ lives were like before they were sharing their home with several dozen cats and raccoons, and the movie does a good job of filling in the blanks. Many moments that are mentioned during the course of the documentary (Edie’s “big break” with Max Gordon; Big Edie’s “accompanist” Tom Gould) are fleshed out here, shedding some light on both women’s undying love of the spotlight and their inherent non-conformity.
Drew Barrymore is good. She does her best to mask her lisp and valley girl twang, but there is just no way Drew Barrymore is not going to sound at least a little like Drew Barrymore. She succeeds more at her portrayal of Edie’s older years, perhaps because she had plenty of footage to mimic. She’s less convincing when playing young Edie. Jessica Lange, on the other hand, pretty much disappears into the role of Big Edie. She doesn’t have the trilling singing voice that Big Edie had, but she gets the accent down, and when she’s Big Edie as an old woman? She’s amazing. (I also have to add that it’s the first movie I’ve seen her in in a long while where I wasn’t completely distracted by her immobile face.) Jean Tripplehorn’s brief appearance as Jackie Onassis is most likely an entirely fabricated scenario, but I’m sure it’s one everyone who’s seen the doc has imagined. And while Tripplehorn does look like Jackie, she sounds like she’s channeling JFK’s accent much more than the real Jacqueline’s.
One of the biggest questions one has when learning the story of the Beales of Grey Gardens is just how they ended up in the situation they ended up in. Sure, we can know the details: their trust money ran out; they had no help in maintaining the house; and Big Edie had a stubborn attachment to her home. But there’s a giant leap someone must make to get from letting the garbage pile up, to letting it pile up so high it reaches the ceiling and threatens to crush the dozens of cats who are scrambling around it. One could assume a crucial crack in sanity happened to both of the women at some point, but that isn’t addressed in the film.
But maybe that’s why the story remains so fascinating to people. If all you really know is that these women came from a blue-blooded family, lived in luxury, were related to the First Lady of the United State, and ended up living in complete squalor–while still maintaining an undeniable uniqueness and flair that is contagious–well, of course you’ll want to watch them, perhaps hoping you can figure it all out for yourself.
Ultimately, if you’re only going to see one movie about the Edies, the original documentary is the one to see. But this film is also fun for fans of that doc, (there are countless references to it, and not just in the moments that are taken directly from it). And for those unfamiliar with the women, watching it will likely result in new viewings of the Maysles brothers’ movie; and perhaps the donning of some revolutionary costumes. Which is nothing but an absolutely terrific thing. Honestly.
Grey Gardens premieres on HBO Saturday April 18th at 8 P.M.