Come Home to Grey Gardens

HBO premieres Grey Gardens, featuring Drew Barrymore.

Come Home to Grey Gardens

Maybe all art is derivative. But sometimes, rarely, after what genius hath wrought filters down through a few generations of American culture, the inevitable spawn, so often a diluted bastard of its inspiration, actually beats the original at its own game.

HBO's Grey Gardens, the anticipated bio pic of Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, accomplishes just that rare feat. The source material in this case is the groundbreaking 1975 documentary of the same name by Albert and David Maysles, filmed during a particularly hot summer at Grey Gardens, the Beales' derelict family estate in East Hampton, New York.

The release of the grainy film, which examines the once haute, now absent-mindedly squalid lives of an eccentric, but still bitingly observant mother and daughter, announced a brash new approach to what was then called cinéma vérité, and brought a cult following to the Edies, who were no less fascinating in 1975 for being the forgotten Bouvier relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy.

After all these years, and all of the flies on the wall it inspired, we continue to rubberneck at the Maysleses' documentary …

… for the same reasons that we still stare at portraits by "freak" photographer Diane Arbus: We seek assurance that by comparison we are "normal." But in reality we are dipping our toes in our own fear. These artists know that, and ask us to take another look in defense of subjects that we have dehumanized because they mirror our own awful dread. Aren't our everyday tasks just desperate industry to stave off the same unrelenting decline that we see in the Beales and their surroundings? Art like this provides the wrong answer to the universal human question, "What will become of us?", so we cringe. Through Albert Maysles' eyes these subjects become human again, and after 100 minutes in their company the Beales are our own sisters, mothers, aunts, and captors.

Drew Barrymore brings that same spirit of forgiveness to her intimate, loving defense of Little Edie Beale, revealing her in a new light, as the young Edie, the beautiful, spirited, rather offbeat young woman unleashed on Manhattan for the first time. We feel her despair fully, when, later on, just as part of her begins to understand that she will never leave Grey Gardens, her thick, chestnut hair begins falling out in her hands, night after night. As with many dysfunctional people, the inevitable disappointments in Edie's life, and her inability to break free from the comforting restraint of her own Stockholm Syndrome, bring about an uncertain, bilious version of the once-appealing It Girl. As to suspension of disbelief, anyone familiar with the Maysleses' film will find that Barrymore, who reportedly remained in character for the entire month-plus shoot and endured first-rate prosthetic work, essentially conjured her subject from the grave and stepped inside her. Forget about the winsome slacker chick who flashed Letterman and kissed Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer. The enormous, giggling brown eyes now overflow with doubt, but also reveal a stubborn hope that Edie will make it out of Grey Gardens to the night club audiences that await her.

A perfectly-tuned performance from Jessica Lange, as Big Edie, reminds us of that actress's formidable strengths, even as she generously yields scene after scene to Barrymore, who is clearly in her own element. Jeanne Tripplehorn more than holds her own as Jackie, gliding through no-vacancy scenes with Lange and Barrymore, and mastering Jackie's famously difficult speaking voice. Measured, thoughtful direction by Michael Sucsy keeps this crazy crew in line, and wholly believable. Sophisticated production values also cushion the ride: Inconspicuous flash-forwards in the form of dramatized "scenes" from the documentary carry us smoothly back and forth in time, and provide needed context for the uninitiated.

The appeal of the electrical storm created by these two actors notwithstanding, why does the world need this dramatization? Because it finally answers the question we should have focused on the most: Who were the Edies when the house ran like clockwork, when invitations came and went in the mail? The answers, or at least looking for them, help us forgive them, and the inner freak in ourselves.

Good dialogue filters through generations too: For years to come, when someone looks askance at a messy house we'll say, "Well, things just accumulate after Labor Day!"

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