Hollywood once promoted blockbusters with the line, “You’ve read the book, now see the movie.” Now it could just as easily read, “You’ve seen the documentary, now watch the dramatization.” Over the last decade or so, many quality and not-so-memorable projects have been lifted from nonfiction, from “Boys Don’t Cry” to “Milk.”
Now, “Grey Gardens” (7 p.m., today, HBO) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the women featured in the cult 1975 documentary of the same name. The story of “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange) and her daughter, “Little Edie” (Drew Barrymore), was infamous even before pioneering filmmakers David and Albert Maysles turned their cameras on them. First cousins to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Beales inhabited Grey Gardens, a decaying East Hampton mansion filled with cats, garbage and raccoons. After neighbors reported the smell, the health department arrived, and so did photographers. And soon after them, the Maysles.
Combining elements of “Sunset Blvd.,” Dickens’ Miss Haversham, with characters and dialogue seemingly lifted from an underground film by Andy Warhol or John Waters, “Grey Gardens” became one of the most disturbing films ever made and at the same time, a peculiar cult camp sensation. Edie’s deranged dreams of stage stardom spoke to a certain audience. Her outfits inspired fashion designers, and the Beales’ fidelity to Victrola-era songs like “Tea for Two” found their way into “Grey Gardens” the Broadway musical.
I’m happy to announce that rather than merely exhaust this much-explored territory, HBO’s “Grey Gardens” adds new layers to our understanding of the suffocating relationship between mother and daughter. Flashing from the 1970s to the 1930s and back again, we learn about about both Edies’ brittle eccentricities, and how Big Edie drove her husband away and drew her vulnerable, flighty daughter closer to her. After a futile stab at independence, Little Edie returned to Grey Gardens to lose her hair and dwell in simmering frustration, entombed in memories and mounting squalor for decades on end.
This arresting adaptation provides Barrymore with a transformative performance, one that may liberate her from the cute romantic roles that have defined her career. While she occasionally slips in and out of the flat Bouvier accent, Barrymore captures her character’s odd mixture of flirtation and delusion, sweetness and desperation, calculation and victimhood.
Look for Daniel Baldwin as Edie’s one-time lover and Jeanne Tripplehorn in a not-to-be-missed scene as the Beale’s famous cousin. When Emmys are bestowed, Lange will be there.
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