Tuesday, April 21, 2009
A Star Isn't Born.
In 1975 Albert and David Maysles filmed "Grey Gardens", a documentary about the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter who shared the same name.
Aunt and cousin of Jackeline Kennedy Onassis, Big and Little Edie became notorious for their downfall from society and a scandal surrounding the way they kept their East Hampton home, Grey Gardens.
The women lived in unsanitary conditions, shared their home with over fifty cats, raccoons and who knows what other critters and were even rumored to live without water and heat.
The documentary has become something of a cult classic as people become fascinated by what was going on inside the Edies minds and especially what kept them together after all those years.
Now pop culture figures, their appeal lies in the mystery of what happened in their lives before the documentary was released.
Following the very American tradition of dispelling mystery and digesting information for others, HBO films has produced a film version of "Grey Gardens" that tries to fill the gaps between truth, fiction, real life and the documentary.
Jessica Lange plays Big Edie, with a revelatory Drew Barrymore filling in the shoes of Little Edie. The film, directed by Michael Sucsy, travels back and forth in time from the Beales of the documentary to the socialites back in New York who eventually became the eccentric characters.
The production, as expected from the cable network, is stunning and meticulous, with kudos to costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas who dresses the women in clothes that not only look gorgeous, but also serve specific character intentions.
One of Little Edie's most amazing dresses is a one piece white silk dress, complete with hood, that immediately takes us forward in time to when she had lost her hair and wore scarves around her head, same goes for a delicate wrap she puts on going out of the sea which could serve as a cape in other times...
The costumes do the "tying up" work, the screenplay desperately tries to, without any of the forced lines screenwriters Sucsy and Patricia Rozema put in the characters' mouths.
What does separate this adaptation from any other "made for television" movie, is the quality of the performances.
Lange and Barrymore are nothing if not brilliant in the main roles. They both age, through the use of astounding makeup and on the spot accents and voices, almost fifty years in the space of under two hours.
And they achieve something even more rare than good imitation: believable emotional cores which make you forget they are actresses playing actual people.
Lange's Big Edie is a delightful combination of lust, frustration and misguided love towards her daughter.
"I was happier singing than anything I've ever done since I was born" she confesses to the Maysles, with an affecting tone that would become morbid if she didn't then burst into a joyous performance of "Tea for Two" while sitting on a decaying bed.
In scenes set in 1936 Lange just oozes sex and happiness, without letting go of a certain kind of conservative behavior that makes her become overbearingly protective of her daughter.
She talks to her daughter in a condescending way and seems delighted whenever she proves herself right, even if her daughter has suffered for this to become true.
In old age, Lange gives Big Edie an awkward kind of sweetness that becomes inconceivable whenever she lashes out on her daughter.
When she tells Little Edie "if you're stuck here it's only with yourself", there's a certain kind of resentment and ingratitude that shock only then to be replaced by compassion, as you feel the pain inside this woman.
Barrymore is incredible, really nobody probably saw this coming from her. Perhaps because she's someone who knows what it's like to be typecast and never given a chance to breakthrough, she connects to Little Edie in unexpected ways.
Little Edie always dreamed of becoming an actress (this film suggests that she also wanted to be first lady and held resentment towards Jackie O., portrayed here with gravitas and dignity by Tripplehorn ), but by both the documentary and this film's end, what's obvious is that Edie wanted to be any kind of star.
She becomes involved with a married man (Daniel Baldwin) and as her dreams seem less unattainable goes back to her mom in Grey Gardens, eventually becoming her only, human, companion.
Barrymore, who can win anything based on charm alone, creates a terrifically appealing Edie; as a young woman she's breathtaking and sexy, she introduces herself as "Ms, Beale, poet, temptress, entertainer...".
Older, when her hair has fallen off, she still retains a classic sort of glamour. It's heartbreaking to see her literally holding on the the last pieces of fabric she had to come up with ingenious things to wear. Her now famous pin skirt/cape isn't a cry of desperation as much as a statement of pride.
Drew also gives Edie a sad quality notable in quiet moments when the camera is focused on someone else. It's when she doesn't try to hog the spotlight that she becomes more fascinating.
Excited at the possibility of becoming a star under the Maysles direction she proclaims she will change the 70's "just like the way the New Wave changed cinema!" and later adds "though I never went out to see the New Wave".
It's ironic that Barrymore has blossomed into a real actress by playing someone who never got her chance to do so.
But there's also something quite ironic in that statement, since the nature of the Beales' lives offers many questions about what exactly constitutes performing arts.
"I'm not much of an actress you know" says Big Edie to the Maysles but still puts on a hell of a show for them.
So does Little Edie who tells authorities knocking on her door, "I'll be down as soon as I put on some lipstick".
Were these women auditioning fo their entire lives? If so, the word exploitation is often heard in regards to the Maysles and this film which never clears this up for us, suggests even that the Beales' thirst for fame was just as exploitative as the filmmakers' approach.
One of them sums up this divine decadence by saying "It's just artists making a film about artists".
If this is such an inclusive engagement, where do we stand?