Barrymore and Lange Bloom in HBO’s Grey Gardens

Grey 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.