TV Review: Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange Give Color to ‘Grey Gardens’

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No votes yet Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – One of the best films of 2009 is currently playing on HBO in the original “Grey Gardens”. The film itself doesn’t quite stand up to recent accomplishments of the network like “John Adams” or “Recount” but it undeniably features the best performance of the year, including theatrical releases, in the revelatory, career-best work from Drew Barrymore.

Bringing new dramatic shades to a quirkiness that she’s always had on-screen, Barrymore plays “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, daughter of “Big Edie” (Jessica Lange). In 1973, Albert and David Maysles entered the reclusive world of the Bouvier Beales to film a documentary about these two eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Living in a run-down house, giving shows for each other, and basically living on the edge of sanity, the documentary “Grey Gardens” was a riveting portrait of these two unforgettable women.

Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens
Photo credit: HBO Films

The Maysles captured day-to-day life in almost total isolation in every way. Little Edie and Big Edie had absolutely no grip on reality, living in squalor but acting like social darlings. How did they get there? The narrative HBO film inspired by the documentary attempts to answer that question (but only barely does) by flashbacking to key moments in their lives.

It’s an ambitious narrative structure that sometimes feels nearly as disjointed as the Beales grip on reality. Essentially, Big Edie never knew how to live within her means and when the world collapsed around her, she withdrew and sucked her daughter back in with her.

Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens
Photo credit: HBO Films

The episodic screenplay for “Grey Gardens” leaves some holes in the storytelling. Perhaps there is no answer for the Beales. Sure, the film details the ladies tenuous grip on reality and co-dependence from an early age. Both women refused to play by society’s rules, especially when it came to living in a state of denial about their dire financial situations and they fed each other’s insecurities.

The problem is that the script for “Grey Gardens” by Michael Sucsy (who also directed) never quite gets under their skin. I still don’t feel like I know the Beales. But, like I said, maybe they are un-knowable. More damagingly, the final act of “Grey Gardens,” particularly an explosive fight that serves as the climax, feels manufactured.

Whatever problems I had with the script for “Grey Gardens” are completely offset by the stunning performances by Lange and Barrymore. Lange is very good, but she’s done aging eccentricity for years, so that’s not much of a surprise. However, one shouldn’t discredit what Lange accomplishes here simply because her incredible talent is already widely acknowledged. “Grey Gardens” only makes me wish she would work more on the big screen.

The real revelation of “Grey Gardens” is Drew Barrymore. This is Emmy-winning work for sure and something that would have been considered for Oscar if it was released theatrically. She completely sells both the young and old Little Edie, the glamour and the awareness that she’s being sucked into a vortex by a mother who knows her daughter is her last and only hope for companionship. It’s not only the best thing that Barrymore has ever done. Nothing else even comes close.

“Little Edie” Bouvier Beale and “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale would probably be simply over-the-moon to know that an HBO movie had been made about their lives. It may not be the most flattering or illuminating work about these two women, but it’s amazing how much they can continue to fascinate, nearly four decades after the Maysles brought them into the spotlight that they always thought they deserved in the first place.

‘Grey Gardens,’ which is airing all this month on HBO and On Demand, stars Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange, Ken Howard, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Daniel Baldwin. It was written by Michael Sucsy and Patricia Rozema and directed by Sucsy. content director Brian Tallerico

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