Film Review #207: HBO's Grey Gardens
Diector: Michael Sucsy
Cast; Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange, Jean Tripplehorne
Beginning in the fall of 1971, reports – first in the National Enquirer – began appearing in the New York City press about a dilapidated mansion in an exclusive oceanfront section of East Hampton, the Long Island enclave some 114 miles from New York City. Grey Gardens was the Beale family’s 28-room estate, then inhabited by Edith Bouvier Beale, Sr. (“Big Edie”) and her 55-year-old daughter Edith, Jr. (“Little Edie”), plus a large number of cats and raccoons. Because Big Edie owned the property, her estranged husband had been powerless to sell it, as had her two sons, although they administered the small trust left to her after his death, which had by then run out. The media sensation – first the tabloids, then the mainstream dailies and Gail Sheehy’s article “Paradise Lost” in New York Magazine – stemmed partly from the estate’s extreme disrepair and its inhabitants’ bizarre theatricality.
Neighbors complaining of the stench had led the Suffolk County Health Department to threaten eviction. Without running water or heat, the house had many windows broken, was overgrown with vines and underbrush, filthy and trash-filled. Big Edie was John “Blackjack” Bouvier’s sister; his daughters, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, were Little Edie’s first cousins. In the summer of 1972, Mrs. Onassis (Jean Trippelhorne in the HBO version) visited Grey Gardens, where she had spent much time as a child, while she was visiting her sister, who was visiting Andy Warhol in Montauk. When Big Edie insisted she would not leave, her two nieces arranged for a massive cleaning and refurbishing. During this project, Mrs. Radziwill brought the brothers Albert and David Maysles around. The Maysles, already acclaimed for their Rolling Stones cinema vérité documentary Gimme Shelter, hoped to film Lee and Jackie. A year later they showed up again – Mrs. Onassis had “lost interest” in their movie – asking to film Big and Little Edie.
Little Edie had discovered that first National Inquirer photographer shooting from the bushes and invited him in – she hoped publicity would revive her old dream of a dancing career – and she welcomed the Maysles and insisted her contract contain a clause that she could appear in other films. Big Edie had aspired to a singing career herself; she spends a fair amount of time on-screen in the ensuing film – when not bickering and making up with Little Edie – vamping and singing 30s and 40s pop tunes from beneath enormous old hats, ensconced in her bed with her cats, newspapers, hand mirror, empty pâté tins and ice cream cartons.
The Maysles’ 1975 film has been an enduring classic in its own right. Re-released in 2006 on a two-disc Criterion set, its copious extras contain an audio clip of Little Edie telephoning Albert Maysles after the Bush-Gore election. Big Edie had died in 1977; two years later Little Edie sold Grey Gardens, had a farewell two-night sold-out cabaret engagement in Greenwich Village, traveled and settled in Bal Harbour, Florida, where she died in 2002.
The Maysles’ riveting film is now also worth seeing along with Michael Sucsy’s new dramatized version. The HBO film premiered in April and came out on DVD several weeks ago; it has a whopping 17 Emmy nominations, including one each for Best Lead Actress in a Mini-series or Film for Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. For one thing, it makes clear (as the Maysles really didn’t) to what extent, in a single intervening year, most of Jackie and Lee’s improvements vanished.
The Maysles also hadn’t tried to account for Grey Gardens’ decline over the quarter century or so the two women lived there alone. Sucsy asked himself a dozen questions about what might have occurred and then attempted to fill in those gaps. So we see Little Edie at her New Year’s Eve 1936 debutante ball at the Pierre Hotel, see her mother’s narcissism and sabotage of her confidence, her brief Manhattan period when trying to break into dancing, her affair with Truman’s former Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug, her mother’s maneuvers to get her home after her own affair with a live-in “singing teacher” fell apart. Little Edie was witty, unstable, bright, surprisingly generous, gracious, blunt, ill-equipped to strike out on her own, stricken. Sucsy alternates these vignettes with often remarkable, verbatim recreations of scenes from the Maysles film. I watched these two films together last week. Like Helen Mirren reincarnating Queen Elizabeth, Barrymore and Lange astonish.
This review appeared in the August 6, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. HBO’s Grey Gardens and Criterion’s 2006 DVD of the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary are both available at Netflix. The Emmy Awards air 9/20 on CBS.