Grey Gardens (2009)

"Extraordinary"

Grey Gardens (2009) Review


Most serious film fans know the story of Grey Gardens: how documentarians Albert and David Maysles were investigating the life of Jackie Kennedy Onassis's sister Lee Radziwill for a film and stumbled upon the unforgettable duo of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Eddie; how it took a year of "convincing" before the women would allow them to film in their manor; how the resulting motion picture turned the plight of these discarded society matrons into the stuff of living legend; and how since the movie's success, the Beales' story has been adapted into books, a Broadway musical, and a stage play. Now HBO puts its spin on the material, bringing Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore to the small screen for the TV version of this intriguing tale -- and it's also amazing, just like the subjects.

When they are approached by the Maysles (Arye Gross, Justin Louis) about making a movie of their life, Big Edith Beale (Lange) and her daughter Little Edie (Barrymore) are a tad suspicious. After all, they have let few people in their decaying Hamptons home, and the last time anyone showed up, it was the county health inspector threatening to condemn the mansion. Intrigued by the idea of being in a movie however, the duo agree, and soon we are whisked back to the days when Big Edith suffered through her straight-laced husband Phelan (Ken Howard) as Little Edie wooed Truman Cabinet member Julius Krug (Daniel Baldwin). As she ages, the sullen matriarch wants more freedom. Instead, she becomes a virtual recluse in her home, calling on her jet-setting offspring to come home and care for her. Thanks to relative Jackie Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn), they have enough money to live on. But their life is still one of misguided dreams and internalized strife.

Perfectly cast, expertly crafted, and faultlessly executed by all involved, Grey Gardens would have been an instant Oscar contender had it not been mounted for HBO. It wholly lacks that made-for-TV aura, and next year's awards season will be a little less special without Lange and Barrymore in the running. Each gives the performance of a lifetime, avoiding imitation or caricature to capture the true nature of the Beales. Even better, they are required to do so in both recreations of the Maysles' magnificent documentary and in filler material which highlights their relationship from the late '20s to right before Big Edie's death. Never once do these actresses misstep. They mesh with our memories of the original Grey Gardens' subjects while broadening the entire personality perspective.

Indeed, Michael Sucsy's film is a stunning tribute to the two fallen socialites, a wonderful work of pure adoration that doesn't skimp on the sordid details. It plays as a definitive companion piece to the Maysles' film because it fills in the gaps left open by the Beales while solidifying the psychological issues that the 1975 classic only hints at. Clearly, Big Edie would never be happy until she could control and manipulate her daughter -- and when such domination didn't produce a husband, the aging figure required a constant caregiver. The final sequences are indeed the most shocking, Sucsy never avoiding the horrid squalor and outright filth the women lived in. Yet even as they fall apart right along with their estate, Grey Gardens maintains their dignity and indomitable spirit.

Again, Lange and Barrymore are nothing short of brilliant, truly remarkable in what had to be a near impossible feat of inspired impersonation. And those without the context of the documentary will definitely be missing some necessary background and insight. Still, for a project that could have been problematic, HBO's Grey Gardens is terrific. It's the undeniable validation the Beales were always looking for, and much, much more.

Happy birthday, Mr. President.



Facts and Figures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Cast & Crew

Director: Michael Sucsy

Producer: Michael Sucsy, David Coatsworth

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