The Beales of Grey Gardens have been the focus of creative interpretation for years. First the documentary, then another documentary, followed by a musical, a documentary about the musical, a book, and now — the HBO dramatization. Maybe the sitcom is to follow. It’s not hard to understand why so many artists have been entranced by the Beales and their tumbledown aristocratic manor. But it is perhaps time — particularly given the mediocrity of HBO’s Grey Gardens — that a halt be called.
In 1976, David and Albert Maysles released Grey Gardens, a documentary about an eccentric mother and daughter, both named Edie Bouvier, offshoots of the sprawling Kennedy clan. By the time the filmmaking brothers caught up with them, Big Edie and Little Edie (as they termed each other) had lived for decades in the crumbling edifice of Grey Gardens, a once-grand home in the East Hamptons that had long since become a squalid den where raccoons rooted about in the garbage and trees grew through the rotting walls. The Edies jabbered and bickered like any co-dependent parent and offspring, spinning webs of grandeur around their shabby reality, providing tantalizing hints of their country-club pasts. They lived off corn on the cob and ice cream while playing records and settling decades-old scores with each other.
The Maysles’ Grey Gardens attracted a cult following, particularly for the Edies’ proto-drag queen antics. So it made perfect sense that in 2006 the story became a Broadway musical. Featuring a pair of actresses (Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson) whose grasp of verisimilitude was borderline eerie, the musical opened up a whole new world for the Beales. It limned the glam circumstances of their 1930s’ existence, when Little Edie was still a debutante and Big Edie just another society grand dame who liked a little too much to hear the sound of her own voice singing at parties. It knew exactly when to play the Beales’ eccentricities for humor and when to show them as brave manifestations of individuality in a world that leaves women like them few choices. By giving real song and spectacle to the Beales (both of whom harbored unrealized dreams of performing), the musical provided them a posthumous sort of dignity.
Michael Sucsy’s non-musical dramatization charts a tentative path between the Mayles’ straight-on, no-judgment take and the anything-goes extrapolation of the musical. It’s safe, exploring a couple new avenues and providing a dash of self-reflexivity, but wasting more opportunities than it takes.
Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore turn in perfectly capable performances as Big and Little Edie, locating both the charm and the bitterness beneath the bluster, but taking few chances. The supporting cast is even less illuminating. With the exception of Jeanne Tripplehorn’s believably regal Jackie O — whose one scene, after the early-’70s press storm about the squalor of Grey Gardens brought some embarrassment to the Kennedys, is one of the film’s highlights — they all fade into the background. In a story calling out for at least a dash of excess, too often the filmmakers opt for taste and reserve.
The script’s framing device is at least appropriate, starting and closing with the Beales watching the rough cut of the Maysles’ film. Whereas the documentary occasionally allows viewers to forget that these women are, eccentric or not, always performing, here their yen for self-creation and -dramatization becomes incessantly explicit. The Maysles tend to seem an excuse for easy reaction shots (cut to David [Justin Louis] and Albert [Arye Gross] grinning as Little Edie shows off one of her fashion-forward outfits), but they serve as a good reminder not to take everything the women do at face value. Their house might look like something the Addams Family would appreciate and that p‰tŽ might be cat food, but the scenes set during the Beales’ latter-day nadir don’t look down on them.
The plentiful flashbacks to 1936 and afterward, when Big Edie’s marriage is on the verge of collapse and Little Edie is turning from a beautiful girl with a flair for the dramatic into a problem daughter who can’t get a husband, also manage not to condescend. What the film doesn’t capture is a larger sense of their lives. We still see the Edies at essentially only two stages in their lives. Each has a man who disappoints her, Big Edie her Gould (Malcolm Gets), the gay pianist who finally can’t handle being her substitute husband, and Little Edie her married boyfriend, who ends their affair in a particularly insensitive manner. After that, we are only provided the tiniest glimpses of those long decades in Grey Gardens, with the once-regal mother and daughter living off a puny allowance while the house falls to ruin about them.
This Grey Gardens deserves credit for not turning the Beales’ story into a wax museum tableau. But it doesn’t breathe life into it either. This isn’t to say the film shouldn’t have been made, but it never makes a strong case for its necessity.