Grey Gardens (Michael Sucsy, 2009): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on DVD.

The fascination with the Beales of Grey Gardens continues, thirty-four years later with HBO’s production of  Grey Gardens the movie.  The film stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big Edith and Little Edie Beale, the eccentric mother-daughter aristocrats of East Hampton.

Unlike the cinema verite documentary, Grey Gardens the film,  gives  fans a brief glimpse into the past of the Beale family, reminding us of what their glamourous life once was, before the inumerable cats, raccoons and squalor.

Out in the Hampton’s, where many wealthy East Coast residents call home (or second home) near the sea,  Grey Gardens was the summer beach house of the Beale’s, a  family who just happened to be related to Jackie Onassis (Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy).

 Edie (Drew Barrymore) is a debutante, whose father Phelan Beale (Ken Howard) is eager to get her married off to a wealthy family, but instead she is ambitious to start a film career and heads off to the Big Apple.  Phelan’s wife  Edith (Jessica Lange), spends too much money and too little time with her husband, and they soon part ways, with Edith informing her husband that she has no intention of ever leaving her beloved summer home Grey Gardens.

Edith emotionally undermines Edie’s career ambitions in the big city, and as Edie’s tryst with a married man turns sour, she returns to her mother and Grey Gardens with her tail tucked between her legs.  The two support each other as they live out their lives in seclusion in the Hamptons.  While emotional stress causes Edie to lose her hair prematurely,  Mr. Beale passes away and the two are put on a strict budget, but when the funds dry up completely both are left penniless.

Fast forward to the 1970’s and the estate is in shambles, with the local authorities earnestly trying to evict the Beales and condemn the house.  Once the press gets the scoop, the public soon finds out that the Beale women are close relatives of Jackie O, barely existing in unlivable conditions.  Jackie, whether out of sheer embarrassment or sincere concern, does eventually step up and help to repair the estate.

There is a fascination with these two women that is beyond the scope of the original documentary.  They had money, and opportunity, which were carelessly lost.  Yet they were  somehow able to shut off this reality, and exist on the  love and compassion for each other.

Both Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange magically capture the intrinsic spirit of each of their characters, which cannot be fully appreciated unless one has viewed the Maysles documentary first.   Jessica Lange won an Emmy for her role as Big Edith, and Drew Barrymore was nominated for an Emmy as Little Edie, both well deserved!

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