Thursday, September 21, 2023

Grey Gardens: The 2009 Television Movie



I am one of the few people who find the Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens tawdry rather than inspirational. The sight of these two old women, with what appears to be a thin grasp of reality, making public spectacles of themselves has always been ghoulish to me. However, the aunt and first cousin to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are more than the 95 minutes where they showcased their opulent poverty. Grey Gardens delves into their pre-infamy lives. A tragic portrait of stifling love and of living in the past, Grey Gardens has two strong performances at its troubled heart.

Flowing from between 1936 and 1973, Grey Gardens revolves around the posh Beale family. There is the matriarch, Edith (Jessica Lange), an old money grande dame who enjoys the glamorous life much to the financial and emotional exasperation of her husband Phelan (Ken Howard). Their daughter, also named Edith (Drew Barrymore) wants her own glamorous life as a singer and actress in New York. Phelan eventually tires of his extravagant wife and divorces her. He also manages to get his daughter to come to New York.

Edith Sr., better known as Big Edie, is convinced Edith, Jr. or Little Edie would be better suited to be with her at the family summer home of Grey Gardens. Little Edie, however, won't be denied. She also won't deny herself an affair with Julius "Cap" Krug (Daniel Baldwin), a married man. "Married men will always break your heart", Big Edie warns, but Little Edie learns too late that in this case, Mother knows best.

After Phelan's death, Edith's sons try to convince their mother to sell Grey Gardens and economize. Big Edie flatly refuses to do either. Despite her thirst for freedom, Little Edie can't or won't move out and on. Grey Gardens soon reflects this mother-daughter duo: fallen on hard times, in squalor and in such wrack and ruin that the Suffolk County Department of Health threatens to condemn the property and evict these two old recluses. Once the inspectors get the warrants and force their way in, they are horrified at the living conditions: cats and their feces everywhere, piles of garbage all around, the building held up only by sheer will.

Also horrified is Mrs. Beale's niece Jackie (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Gagging on entering her aunt and cousin's home, she eventually sees Aunt Edie as carrying on her own sense of upper-crust nobility. Not as horrified are Albert and David Maysles (Arye Grosse and Justin Louis). Originally contracted by Jacqueline's sister Lee to make a documentary about her family's early life, the Maysles find an excellent subject in these two society doyennes wandering in the fog of their self-enclosed world. Grey Gardens the documentary premieres, and Little Edie at last has her own moment of glory all her own. 

I watch both Grey Gardens and the Maysles' follow-up The Beales of Grey Gardens with more horror than pity at these two old women, locked in this strange netherworld of their own making. The 2009 Grey Gardens went past the garish freak show of the Maysles' to present the women before they faded into notoriety. Edith Beale Sr. and Jr. were women who loved life but who also loved poorly. Proud, headstrong, perhaps even staunch to use their own terms, Grey Gardens delivers a well-acted drama of flawed figures.

Both leads deliver strong performances. Barrymore captures Little Edie's patrician tones where it is less mimicry and more genuine speaking. She also makes Little Edie into a young woman pulled between her own desires and those strong pulls to mother, even father. She wants to be a good daughter, but she also wants to carry on doomed romances. The heartbreak when Cap ends their affair clearly breaks Little Edie. Barrymore also gives us Little Edie's haughtiness, even cruelty due to her inability to free herself from her rotting gilded cage.

Lange is more than her equal as Big Edie. Mrs. Beale is fun-loving, even a bit gaudy, but also excessively possessive. She is clearly desirous to have someone stay with her so as to not be alone, but we do see that in her own way, Big Edie did want to do right by her daughter. After Little Edie has something of a psychotic break over starting to lose her hair, Big Edie comforts her. "You have to go on in life, even when you've lost your song", she tells Little Edie. 

As they sink into their own demimonde, they do function to a certain degree. A curious scene is when they listen to President Kennedy's funeral over the radio. In a nod to the seriousness of the situation, they dress in black while sitting up in bed. It is their way of sharing the grief that their niece and cousin Jacqueline must be enduring. They may not have attended in person, but their hearts and what were left of their minds were with her.

Grey Gardens, to my mind, shows the Maysles in a less-than-flattering light, a curious turn given that Albert served as a consultant. As part of their pitch for the documentary, one of them tells them it will be "Artists just making a movie about artists", a clear play at the Beales' delusional ideas about themselves. They give each other knowing glances as Little Edie waxes rhapsodic about her ensemble of blouses as skirts. It is as if we see the brothers as taking advantage of their diminishing capacity, knowing their decaying states and estate will be a gold mine to them. Granted, that may be my own takeaway, but that is an element that makes Grey Gardens work so well. 

Grey Gardens also has strong work from others in the cast. Howard does well as the forever frustrated Phelan, enduring two madwomen whom he loves but can't tolerate. Daniel Baldwin does well as the adulterous Cap, showing surprising tenderness while dumping his mistress. In a smaller role, Malcolm Gets stands out as Gould, Little Edie's vocal and piano teacher who may or may not be Big Edie's lover. The television film is clear that she wants him sexually. It is not clear whether he reciprocated those feelings, was oblivious to them, or was actually gay. Even in the third possibility, it is unclear if he is using Big Edie as a sugar mama or feels genuine affection for this bon vivant. 

Director and cowriter Michael Sucsy (writing with Patricia Rozema) have strong moments which show how the pair are more similar than either would admit or recognize. As Little Edie goes joyfully to New York, Gould attempts to lighten the mood by playing songs that fit the situation. Both of them go along with this until both snap. One yells "Stop it!" and the other yells "Cut it out!" simultaneously, revealing their similar mindset.

The script also has great moments of irony. A clearly irritated Phelan for example arrives home to a party, his oblivious wife belting out Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine when she clearly does not. As Little Edie leaves for New York, she begs her mother, "Please say goodbye". When she is forced to return after her affair with Cap is discovered, it is Phelan that asks, "Edie, please say goodbye". The circle is complete. The ending, where Little Edie gets to perform a muddled rendition of Tea for Two before a rapt cabaret audience, reflects this Grey Gardens altogether. One gawks in wonder, perhaps amusement, perhaps horror, at this woman's self-delusions, feels a bit of sadness for her ineptness and obliviousness, but also realizes she has entertained, however it was taken.

The final on-screen quote, "My mother gave me a completely priceless life", says it all. 

Grey Gardens is a television film about acceptance and regret, of knowing how, perhaps too late, things went wrong but can still make for a somewhat happy end. It is a tragic but sympathetic portrait of these two perhaps demented, perhaps free-spirited women. It did for me what the legendary documentary did not. 

It made me like, even respect, the elder and younger Edith Beale.

Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie): 1895-1977
Edith Beale (Little Edie): 1917-2002


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