Carly at the Movies | The grey ladies of East Hampton

Quite often, on today’s DVD releases, we find a documentary about the making of a fiction movie as a sort of extra added attraction. This month, on HBO, you will find a fictional movie about the making of a documentary. It’s called “Grey Gardens,” and it’s weird, gripping, and excellent.
Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore play the late Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, who were the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jackie Kennedy. They lived in a fancy estate known as Grey Gardens in East Hampton, nowadays the artsy film colony on the far end of Long Island.

In 1975, a documentary was made about these two aging ladies, living with their faded dreams of past social standings, in the crumbling mansion. Both of them were semi-demented, living in the past and putting on airs for the film crew, Al and David Maysles.

The documentary (still available on DVD) is fascinating but lacks a back-story, so I recommend you see this fictionalized version first. You’ll be able to appreciate the doc much more, as well as the wondrous job done by Lange and Drew Barrymore, who’s come a long ways from that little “alligators-in-the-sewers” waif we saw years ago in “E.T.”

The supporting cast in the HBO film is strong, with Ken (“White Shadow”) Howard playing the estranged husband of Mother Beale and Jeanne Tripplehorn appearing late in the film as Jackie O.

Mother and daughter are shown living together in the gradually deteriorating estate as the decades pass, co-dependent and convincing each other of their respective singing and dancing talent and social graces. It’s a bit eerie and frightening, and one would be tempted to just pass them off as a couple of crazy little old cat ladies if they hadn’t been real socially prominent characters.

The makeup is surely admirable, as they age nearly 50 years over the length of the film. The real Edith died in 1976, while her daughter eventually sold Grey Gardens and lived until 2002.

This being a made-for-TV feature, any Oscar consideration is out of the question, but Barrymore, at the very least, should be up for a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. The character’s delusions float so close to the surface that most of the time you simply accept her as a once-talented but fading chanteuse. In truth, her singing and dancing was an embarrassment, and she had little or no training – only good breeding and tons of chutzpah.

The film makes good use of flashbacks to flesh out the story (would that then make them fleshbacks?), and the period musical numbers underline the sad lack of talent possessed by both these women.

Watching the decline of the high and mighty is, for most of us, as fascinating as a car wreck. And watching these two women romping about in their make-believe world is at first compelling and at the end simply sad and tragic. All of which makes the film quite unique and noteworthy. You can catch it almost any night on HBO, and one would think it will eventually be released on DVD in a two-disc package with the original documentary.

 

– Column by Carl Larsen


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