Of all the TV movies produced in 2009, this one is by far the best I've seen. It's nominated for 17 Emmys. Two of those Emmys go to the movie's female stars, Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, who richly deserve them. Lange, is of course, always amazing whereas Barrymore perhaps gives the best performance of her career.
This TV movie is based on the 1975 documentary of the same name by David and Albert Maysles. Grey Gardens is the name of the 28-room, garbage-ridden, raccoon-infested and feline-overrun house on Long Island. Grey Gardens garnered a lot of attention when various newspaper articles were written about it. With plenty of run-down homes, the reason Grey Gardens was noteworthy was due to its occupants.
Grey Gardens was inhabited by two women who were the aunt and cousin of former Presidential-wife Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Both were named Edith Bouvier Beale. Jackie O's aunt was called Big Edie and Jackie's cousin was nicknamed Little Edie. Big Edie and Little Edie were parent and child.
Maysles' documentary opens with Little Edie talking about her very unique wardrobe. She explains her costume, her revolutionary costume, in her thick, East Hampton accent. The 56-year-old also talks about and even demonstrates how much she loves dancing. Like her mother-dear, Little Edie also enjoys singing, but never in her 56 years did she pursue her dream of becoming a stage performer. Little Edie complains about stuff she wished she'd done, like singing and dancing professionally.
The 79-year-old Big Edie who's rather invalid tells her daughter that she has to accept the choices she's made. The one choice in particular is Little Edie's choice to move back to Grey Gardens to live with and take of Big Edie. Big Edie is a no-nonsense, brutally honest woman but she can be very sly and quite passive-aggressive.
It bothers her, but Little Edie puts up with it. Little Edie has no husband and no children. She's very personable and smart, quoting Robert Frost one minute and magnetizing the Maysles the next. If she really wanted, she could have left Grey Gardens and never returned. She could have chased her dream of singing and dancing, but, throughout the documentary, she talks about her responsibility to her invalid mother and there's a lot of anger and resentment in her voice.
Big Edie complains about her adult daughter's constant complaining as well as Little Edie's incessant singing. Yet, you get a sense from comments here and there that Big Edie doesn't or didn't want her child taken away.
Throughout the documentary, there are two fascinations at work. The first is what is the draw of Grey Gardens. From newspaper clippings and a general sense of atmosphere, we understand that Grey Gardens is a dirty, rundown, nasty, decrepit place. So, why do they continue to live there when it's practically condemned?
The second fascination is what is the draw of these two women. Despite dueling motivations, the two of them seem compelled to stay together. Is it merely a very strong mother-daughter bond or is it something else that transcends familial love?
The Maysles' brilliant 1975 documentary opens up those fascinations and allows the audience to be absorbed by them, by these two interesting women. The HBO movie, which Barrymore has said is "epic but enclosed," provides us with the context and backstory to address the curiosities raised in the Maysles' film, but still remain narrowly focused on the two Edies. Essentially, the HBO movie is an attempt at answering the questions the Maysles' film implores.
One way is by going back in time and showing us the history of the two Beale women when they were younger. While the documentary stays anchored in the 1970s, the HBO movie jumps back to the 1930s when the climatic events that led to their emotional tether are revealed.
Director Michael Sucsy said the documentary was merely the clues, clues to a puzzle that he wanted his HBO movie to piece together. Sucsy really examines this bittersweet relationship that forms from the economic pressures and social situations that at times forces these two women to their limits.
One song that was featured in the doc that's really played up in the HBO movie is "Tea for Two," from the musical of the same name. The musical is about a woman's dream of performing that gets dashed. The parallel to Little Edie's life are eerie.
What's also eerie is how both women become disillusioned and totally unaware of the tug-of-war in which they're engaged. They're disillusioned so much, so consumed with hanging on, that they don't even realize the squalor in which they're living. This theme of disillusionment carries throughout the movie where people don't see the truth of what's happening because of blinders they put on.
Barrymore and Lange, as these two women, convey that so completely. It's at times heart breaking, but both actresses are so endearing that, despite their eccentricities, you fall in love them. In the case of anyone who saw the documentary first as I did, you fall in love with them again.
Though it's not a requisite, I recommend seeing the documentary first. Watching the HBO movie immediately after didn't dull me. It only made me appreciate Barrymore and Lange's performances more. Instantly, I saw their performances were spot on. Barrymore and Lange moved and sounded exactly like the two Edies but in a way that wasn't mere imitation.
The HBO movie does duplicate scenes from the documentary but never all exactly. Like the actresses, layers are added, which gives refreshing depth. It's all like a behind-the-scenes look at how the documentary was made.
It's in moments funny, as you learn that Little Edie treated the documentary the Maysles present as an acting role. It's also in moments furious, as you learn how much it's Big Edie's fault that Little Edie is trapped in Grey Gardens, whereas the documentary shows how Little Edie is more the maker of her trap.
Five Stars out of Five
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Check HBO for airdates and times.
Also available on DVD.