Grey Gardens

In the 1970s two film makers made a remarkable documentary. I’d never heard of it until yesterday, but had it presented to me in all its garish intimacy. Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975) is a film taking its name from the estate of the same name, owned by a branch of the Bouvier family.

Yes that family, the same one that gave the world Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill. Knowing that, it shouldn’t be surprising that the mother and daughter, Edith  Bouvier Beale –both mother and daughter are named Edith–should both be remarkably handsome women.

If you’ve seen this film you’ve seen one of the precursors to reality television. It’s a documentary like nothing I’d seen before.  Yet of course I’ve seen all too much recently: on television. The camera is unforgiving, invasively close and hungry for every absurd revelation. Celebrity is captured here in the same insane colours we’ve seen in Sunset Boulevard: except this is genuine, not fiction. And it’s even more twisted by decay & spoilage. Here’s a sample, see for yourself.

The reason I was finally exposed to the documentary was in an encounter with the other Grey Gardens, a 2009 HBO meta-drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. The first hour is brilliant, a clever exploration of subtexts for the wreckage we encounter in the doc. Had the film-makers had a bit more nerve they could have made something as profound as their source.  Perhaps they were held back by requirements such as delicacy or even stipulations from the owners of this bizarre story: what they could or could not say. It seems odd, considering how zany this is, that there would be any stipulations, but when we come to the last 30 minutes it’s all suddenly very careful where previously it had been devil-may-care.  Maybe the deal with HBO insisted on certain proprieties, and thereby kiboshed the result.

In a curious mirror to their source, they are undone, it appears by vanity, ego, and old-fashioned ham. It’s much too long. We were sitting there laughing through a last half-hour when we kept wishing it would be over. Drew Barrymore is an actor who carries on her family’s tradition of bravura virtuosity, but likely was the reason the project came undone in its final half-hour. The scene where the young Edith confronts a visiting Jacqueline Onassis is painful to watch for all the wrong reasons. A director with more backbone would have found another way to deliver the lines “I could have been the First Lady” than screamed into her face from three inches away.  Michael Sucsy is the director and co-writer with Toronto’s Patricia Rozema (I have to assume that everything good in the film comes for her). It doesn’t help that Barrymore shares the screen with Jessica Lange, who is her usual study in subtle integrity. On the few occasions when Lange’s delivery diverges from what we’ve seen in the original doc –and yes it’s possible to compare because several moments in the original are replicated in the new film—she makes choices of profound subtlety and stillness.

It’s a very subtle and deep problem because the younger Edith is herself a histrionic ham, someone that Drew must have felt called to play.  In the first hour especially it’s magic.  But I wonder if Barrymore considers whether a histrionic ham can be herself underplayed. That moment with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (did i miss any additional surnames?) likely could have worked quietly, given the immense pain pulsing under the surface.  Or maybe the purpose was to make Jeanne Tripplehorn look good in her dignified portrayal of the former First Lady.

I recommend this film both for the brilliance of the first hour, and for the laughable last one. And speaking of ache, while the story is a painful study in what might have been –thinking of the stifled talents of the younger Edith—the same applies to Drew Barrymore, a bright shining light that continues to be misused. She needs a director willing to stand up to her.  I’ve seen the same thing with other loud talents –Al Pacino comes screaming to mind– who are loved the way family members are loved: in spite of the horrible things they do.

I keep dreaming that they’ll find the right vehicle.

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2 Responses to Grey Gardens

  1. Heather Wilson says:

    There was also a weird little musical on Broadway in 2006/2007 based on it – both Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson won Tonys for their performances (which were indeed fab)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_Gardens_(musical)

  2. Eric Solstein says:

    Calling the Maysles’ “Grey Gardens” “one of the precursors to reality television,” is like calling Howlin’ Wolf, one of the precursors to disco music. Yeah, a line could be drawn from one to the other, but it’s a faint, wiggly line amidst so many other, more direct ones… so says this proud documentary filmmaker.

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