'Grey Gardens'

Where Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange Bloom

by Matt Mazur

16 April 2009

Photo (partial) by
HBO / Peter Stranks 
Grey Gardens premiers on HBO Saturday, 18 April 8PM EST.

“We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources to render reality to men – in a form they can understand.” —Bertold Brecht

Though they have been consistently knocking it out of the park for years, very little press has been dedicated to the brilliance of HBO’s commitment to showcasing unique female characters and a dynamic spectrum of women’s experiences. Whether in their Emmy-winning telefilms or in their groundbreaking original programming, the company puts the emphasis on diversity when it comes to the employing actresses, a refreshing change of pace from typical Hollywood fare.

On one hand, we might see British dramatic standards such as Maggie Smith (My House in Umbria) or Emma Thompson (Wit), but on the flipside, there are equally remarkable turns from women like S. Epatha Merkerson (Lackawanna Blues) and Khandi Alexander (The Corner). That’s not even counting the Laura Linneys, Laura Derns or Meryl Streeps that have excelled in signature productions released on the cable channel.

In original series such as the landmark Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, HBO’s dedication to quality parts for women gallantly shows through and has even changed the landscape of television as we know it. The company has been a pioneer in the field of providing subversively feminist filmmaking and programming, showcasing an unprecedented cross-section of female characters. They’re doing it as we speak with Jill Scott in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the sprawling, feminine-centric cast of Big Love.

In other words, they are employing the most vibrant, vital actresses and performers of our time who don’t always get plum roles in features because of gender, age, race, and size. Women of all kinds are positively flowering in the HBO garden. It is no surprise then, that their newest film, Grey Gardens, based on the seminal Maysles’ brothers documentary, focuses again on the experience of several interesting women.

Star Jessica Lange has dipped her toe into the HBO pool once before, to great success, with the extremely underrated Normal, a film that challenged convention in every possible sense while still remaining true to the firebrand actresses’ artistic principles. Opposite Tom Wilkinson, Lange played a housewife who must come to terms with the fact that her husband has gender identity disorder and plans to undergo a sex change.

Long before Angelina Jolie, Lange was a celebrated, dedicated mother and humanitarian traveling the globe to fight AIDS and to advocate for oppressed children. She even drew the ire of the conservative right for her outspoken criticisms of George Bush’s administration and its unjust war in Iraq (she called his tactics “poisonous”). Lange again finds herself proffering a message of tolerance of the way others choose to live in Grey Gardens, which premieres on HBO April 18.

Here, Lange takes on the larger-than-life “Big” Edie Bouvier Beale, opposite Drew Barrymore as “Little” Edie. In accepting the almost unimaginable challenge of not only re-creating specific scenes from the beloved documentary, but also filling in the blanks with the woman’s past, the Oscar-winner is rewarded with her most substantial role in ten years. Codependent, American pseudo-aristocracy, this mother-daughter team gained notoriety for being distant, black sheep relatives of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but also for living in squalor in a run-down, condemned mansion in East Hampton, New York. 

The new film is part biography, part poignant reenactment of the Maysles’ seminal verite documentary, which may have been the flashpoint for what we now know as reality television, before it became the wild animal it is today. The directors treated their subjects with reverence despite their oddball eccentricity and what resulted was a cultural phenomenon.

Everybody has tried to, knowingly or not, emulate the prototypical Beales.  From Anna Nicole Smith to The Osbournes, no reality television stars have yet had the kind of magic possessed by these women, nor has anybody come even remotely close to the kind of emotional honesty on display in the original doc. It seems as though everyone today wants to be a reality television star and be famous, but very few are cognizant of what kind of pressures or responsibilities actually lurk in being a celebrity.

The Beales, having grown up in the public eye, were all about the formality of society, manors and prizing artistry above all else. “Big” Edie was known for her raucous cocktail parties in which she and “Little” Edie were prone to sweet little songs and soft-shoe acts for onlookers. They were local color with connections. The senior Edie seemed to almost be afraid of letting the younger Edie outshine her; she wanted to keep her on a short leash, partly to protect her, partly to control her.

Everything is great for the women, until their lifestyle catches up to them, and the financial rug is pulled from underneath their feet. When Big Edie’s straitlaced husband leaves her for another woman, he takes his money with him, leaving Big and Little Edie to fend for themselves.

All he bequeaths his wife and daughter when he dies is a trust of $150 a month, to be managed by the male children. Unfortunately, with their heads in the clouds, the money quickly began to disappear. Even though “Big” Edie was living in an era where women didn’t have a lot of power, and young women in society were expected to marry to advance their lives, the deed to Grey Gardens was in her name. Later in the film, she says she will only leave the house “feet first” and that her best memories in life are of singing and dancing in the mansion.

Photo (partial) by HBO / Peter Stranks

Photo (partial) by HBO / Peter Stranks

In the later scenes, Lange’s expression and delivery seems to suggest that one single happy memory can provide enough fodder for 50 years of financially irresponsible daydreaming. When the smell from the excrement-strewn house became an issue for East Hampton residents, the authorities were called in to condemn the property and evict the women. Can a home still be a home when it is falling to pieces and overrun by raccoons? 

Thankfully, the media coverage they incurred brought them to the attention of Cousin Jackie (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who swept (briefly) back into their lives to help the ladies she once admired as a child, providing one of the film’s key scenes. Parallels can be drawn to the current stories of financial despair. Watching the current housing and financial crises unravel in the news every day, the desperation in Grey Gardens takes on an extra layer of contemporary meaning and it is not so hard to imagine oneself in the Beales’ shoes. When you know that you are going down, doing it your way, despite everyone’s warnings and assistance, can be the best therapy.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media