[17 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“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
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.
Photo (partial) by HBO / Peter StranksGrey Gardens premiers on HBO Saturday, 18 April 8PM EST.
Barrymore and Lange do a bang-up job of providing a full, accurate back-story to these women’s lives and decisions. They challenged norms, sartorial norms, gender norms, and socio-economic norms. They were outspoken, artistic women who lived in a time where freedom of expression was frowned upon, and when a woman rarely had her name on the deed to a 28-room mansion. “Big” Edie’s sense of safety came from her home, dirty or clean. It was hers. Grey Gardens was just about the only thing that was not taken away from her.
Both women virtually revel in film theorist Barry King’s four categories of acting: the facial, the gestural, the corporeal, and the vocal. Each character is outfitted with (very convincing) prostheses, accents, old age make-up, false teeth, costumes and other accoutrements to seal the deal. To understand the Beales, Barrymore and Lange first physically transform into the Beales. Then, after the transformation, they provide an eloquent emotional translation from the inside out.
Barrymore experiments with the ineffable harlequin essence of Little Edie by expounding on her gifts for physical comedy and movement. “Humphrey Bogart was both an accomplished actor and a star,” said philosopher and scholar Stanley Cavell in his essay “Reflections on the Onthology of Film”. “Some people are, just as some people are both good pitchers and good hitter; but there are so few that it is surprising that the word ‘actor’ keeps on being used in place of the more beautiful and more accurate word ‘star’; the stars are only to gaze at, after the fact, and their actions divine our projects.” This quote could be used to describe both “Little” Edie and Barrymore, the actress.
The blushing Ms. Barrymore is a true star in every sense. Descended from Hollywood royalty, Barrymore is a Phoenix risen from the ashes of addiction, but also the perfunctory rom-com foibles of yesteryear, and an remains an adventurous, romantic young presence in film who has carved a highly identifiable, even likable niche for herself, in an age where all of the good actresses are either 40 or older or still desperately courting the tween set. A producer of note for some years, Barrymore will, later this year, direct her first feature film, the roller derby-themed Whip It.
Her turn as “Little” Edie is not perfect, but that raw, needy edge that she brings to her character, the desire, the melancholy, all suggest a shocking, thoughtful emotional maturity. “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present” is Little Edie’s heartbreaking, daffy signature one-liner, and Barrymore nails the cruel reality of this woman’s situation. The sentence is delivered with an empathetic assuredness, partly borrowed from Little Edie’s reality, partly from Barrymore’s. This kind of brave spirit is what is missing from other actresses her age.
Then there is the “Punch” to Barrymore’s “Judy”: Lange nails the peculiarly Pulcinellian spirit of “Big” Edie in an ambitious, thrilling performance that is unlike anything she has done because of the sheer physicality, but also expounds on such “Langeian” staples as “the mother”, “the comedienne” and “the loon”. There is also more than a pinch of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois, Maggie the Cat, Amanda Wingfield in this new creation, and maybe even a bit of Mary Tyrone. Not a huge surprise, given these are all characters Lange had previously tackled onstage.
Photo (partial) by HBO / Peter Stranks
With “Big” Edie, her singular cadence expertly captured by the actress, the flaws and insecurity are paired with her effervescence in equal measure. It is a fair, thoughtful characterization that Lange obviously took great care to construct and protect. She feigns being a woman of little substance, but the free-spirited “Big” Edie, in actuality, understands her situation better than anyone, she even manipulates it, but ultimately, she simply refuses to subscribe to any type of conventional way of thinking. Just as the archetypal Pulcinella, “Big” Edie overflows with contradictions.
What’s so great about Lange’s work here is that it is unlike everything else she has done. Brecht said “we get empty, superficial, formalist, mechanical acting if in our technical training we forget for a moment that it is the actor’s duty to portray living people.” And this kind of naturalism has always been a Lange signature. She is an instinctive actor who is rarely encumbered by theatrical trappings such as make-up, costume or prostheses. Objectively speaking, the performance might not necessarily be on par with Queen Tamora of Titus, Frances Farmer or her Oscar-winning Carly Marshall from Blue Sky, but it is a damned good reminder of why this actress should be in contention for every single role that is being handed to Streep by casting agents with limited imaginations.
Lange, perhaps through some work of her own, has distanced herself from film acting, preferring to pursue other creative outlets such as her recent book 50 Photographs, the stage, or her master class at Ireland’s Galway Film Fleadh. When she chooses to take acting work, it is always something with meaning and with purpose – something we should be paying attention to. By shining her light on this story, and flexing her muscles in a vibrant new way, Lange strikes a blow for actresses over 50 who are underrepresented in general, but who are also in danger of being typecast as “the mother” or “the loon”. Look for her to collect her long-overdue first Emmy come September for Grey Gardens.