“Two roads diverged in yellow woods,and pondering one, I took the other,and that made all the difference.”
It’s tricky when art goes out of its way to imitate life, especially when that life, or in the case of HBO’s Grey Gardens those lives, have already been consigned to celluloid via a documentary of the same name.
The original Grey Gardens was directed by Albert and David Maysles in 1975. At the time of its release, the film was criticized as being exploitative, and the Mayles were condemned for failing to keep a proper distance between themselves and their subjects. Now, however, with the passage of time and loosening of standards, it’s considered one of the finest documentaries ever made.
Grey Gardens explores the untidy lives of 80-year-old Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, 56-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale, known as Big Edie and Little Edie, and their ramshackle 28-room East Hampton mansion known as Grey Gardens. That their lives were untidy and their house derelict was the documentary’s hook, but the bait was the fact that Big Edie and Little Edie were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O, the flawless Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
(Oddly enough, Jackie O and her sister, Lee Radziwill, were inadvertently responsible for Grey Gardens. They approached the Maysles about making a movie about the Bouviers and mentioned in passing their eccentric aunt and cousin in the Hamptons. The Maysles shot two weeks of footage at Grey Gardens and showed it to Jackie and Lee. They were aghast and confiscated the hour and a half of film, which has never seen the light of day.)
The pathological codependence between Big Edie and Little Edie is what Grey Gardens is about. But that they let the Maysles in their home, with the reclusive, exhibitionistic Beales seemingly oblivious to the impression they were creating, gives the serio-comic documentary nuance and depth. And while Big and Little Edie come off as a couple of batty society broads very much down on their luck, they still maintained, despite their harping and bitchiness, a modicum of dignity — and in Little Edie’s case charm — even surrounded by squalor.
Documentaries are, by their very nature, voyeuristic. They take us to places we might otherwise not go, give us entrée to lives not our own, let us to be the fly-on-the-wall that doesn’t get swatted into oblivion. That the Beales were complicit in their overexposure doesn’t lessen the Peeping Tom-ism inherent in the documentary, but there may have been too many flies on the walls of Grey Gardens for Big and Little Edie to care or notice.
With its echoes of Sunset Boulevard and real-life What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? characters, Grey Gardens was destined for cult classic status. The two Edies’ story became a cultural marker and inspired pop songs, a Tony-nominated musical, several books, two plays, and even spawned a fashion collection.
The latest spin on the hapless Beales, HBO’s Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Sucsy, dramatizes the documentary, with lots of back-story thrown in for good measure. HBO also enlisted the talents of Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore, in a star turn, as Little Edie, with fine supporting work by Jeanne Tripplehorn and Daniel Baldwin. Lange totally embodies Big Edie’s mother-from-hell, with her straggly hair, missing teeth, stained housedress, and manipulative upper hand. But as fine as she is, the focus of Grey Gardens, in both the documentary and HBO’s incarnation, is Little Edie, and Barrymore is pitch and picture-perfect in communicating the vulnerability tempered by joie de vivre that kept her from going completely off the deep end.
Our collective fascination with the fallen and how they soldier on won’t be sated by another go-round with the Beales. But the tale of Big and Little Edie, with its outré, funky universality, is as well served by HBO’s Grey Gardens as by the original documentary. If you’ve seen the two films you know what I mean. If you haven’t, be forewarned. Or as Little Edie said when the Mayles first approached Grey Gardens, “We aren’t ready…come on in.”