HBO // 2009 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // July 29th, 2009
True glamour never fades.
Hot on the heels of its 17 Emmy nominations, HBO has released the critically acclaimed Grey Gardens on DVD. The movie provides the backstory for the classic 1975 documentary of the same name, directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles. That original film has spawned enough fans to warrant a sequel of sorts (The Beales of Grey Gardens), as well as a full-length musical and an unrelated song by the great Rufus Wainwright.
Grey Gardens documents the true story of a mother and daughter who degenerate from wealthy New York socialites to social outcasts living in their moldering estate, named Grey Gardens, in the Hamptons. Both women are named Edith Beale, though the mother and daughter go by "Big Edie" (Jessica Lange, Blue Sky) and "Little Edie" (Drew Barrymore, Charlie's Angels) respectively. "Big Edie" is the sister of former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis's father, which may bring added cachet to the family, but also adds additional scrutiny when it's discovered that the Edies live in squalor and have a fragile grip on reality.
Of course, things didn't fall apart for them overnight. It was decades of stubbornness and bad decisions that led to the downfall, which is depicted with painful and exquisite detail in Grey Gardens.
Fans of the Maysles's Grey Gardens will probably view this HBO adaptation very differently than I have -- though I suspect they will like it as well. I knew of the Beales beforehand, or at least I had vague impressions of two nutty and disgraced socialites. This isn't that far from the truth, but doesn't convey their personalities, or more accurately, their crazy effervescence. While those familiar with the documentary (or musical) will probably compare this film to those previous works, newbies get to discover these fascinating characters for the first time. To the film's great benefit, the lead actresses -- particularly Barrymore -- portray these women with the perfect mixture of humanity, grace, and madness.
It is odd that in a movie with the great Jessica Lange, it's Barrymore -- the same Barrymore who's played manic pixie dream girls almost exclusively the past ten years -- who steals the show. This isn't to say that Lange isn't good (she is), but the soul of the film is in Little Edie and Barrymore gives the performance of a lifetime.
The story, while interesting, is hardly novel: both Edies have dreams of making it as singers, but both are stymied by man troubles and a lack of talent. Specifically, Big Edie is held back by her practical wet blanket of a husband, Phelan (Ken Howard, The White Shadow); Edie is scarred from a love affair with the married politician Julius Krug (a very puffy Daniel Baldwin, Trees Lounge), which causes her to retreat to Grey Gardens and her hair to fall out, both of which contribute to her withdrawal from normal functional society and, to a certain extent, reality.
Throughout the film, and throughout her varied indignities, Little Edie maintains an optimism and verve that is infectious and somehow mitigates the horror of her family life and living situation. It makes us admire and root for her, even when she acts petty and rude towards her cousin, Jackie O. Whereas Jackie embodies an unattainable glamour and poise, the Edies peal back the curtain, exposing human foibles like a raw nerve. However, this doesn't shame them. In fact, they are almost exhibitionists, exposing their lives, and lifestyle, for Albert and David Maysles (and the audience, of course).
All this does lead to a question that is probably more germane to the documentary, but resonates here as well: are these women being exploited? We laugh when Little Edie tells us she had a fight with her mother over a kimono, but are we laughing with her or at her? How aware is Little Edie of this? If she isn't aware, does it even matter, since this is as close to the manifestation of her dream as she's going to get? In the 1970s, these questions were interesting, but now, in the age of reality television, they are almost culturally defining.
This is one of the great strengths of Grey Gardens. The movie is charming and gorgeous, making it easy to enjoy in a superficial and straightforward manner. However, there is an uneasiness to the humor and drama, and exploring that exposes a depth lacking in most movies.
Though Grey Gardens was created for television, the picture and sound are on par with a theatrical movie. The color palette of the sets and costumes is limited to the muted colors of the time period portrayed, but the sharpness and contrast are strong enough to make you sit back and admire the vintage design work. Though the soundtrack is subtle and dialogue heavy, it is mixed well and there are a few effects, such as a train leaving a station, that are impressive.
There are only two special features on the disc, though both are substantial and worthwhile for fans of the movie and the original documentary. The audio commentary is provided by director Michael Sucsy and producers Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachel Horovitz. They all seem enthusiastic about the film (as they should), and provide lots of information on their inspiration and the adaptation process from the original documentary. The 10-minute featurette "Grey Gardens Then and Now" covers much of the same ground, but has interviews with the actors as well, and is able to provide visual examples.
Though this was produced for television, it will hold up with all but the finest films of 2009. The sets and costumes are glamorous and ornate, the acting is first rate, and the movie manages to be funny, charming, harrowing, and sad -- sometimes all at the same time. It is a great introduction to the strange world of the Edies, but I've got to imagine fans of the original Grey Gardens will appreciate the meticulous treatment of the material.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site