Grey Gardens: A Non-Review
“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, you know what I mean?”
–Edith Bouvier Beale
I was first introduced to Grey Gardens by a friend of mine who had seen it dozens of times and quoted it often. He said I absolutely had to see it, that it would change my life. While it was difficult for me to watch all the way through the first time, and I still have trouble getting through the whole thing whenever I watch it again, Grey Gardens is unforgettable. I think everyone should see it.
When the musical came out, I was oh so excited. My parents got me tickets to it for my birthday, and I highly enjoyed it (although the first act, which is not based on the movie, I could take or leave). The flamboyant and yet painfully intimate documentary film was well suited for the adaptation to Broadway musical. The addition of musical numbers did not seem glaringly out of place, since the documentary itself was alive with music and dance. The portrayal of the Beales on the stage was thoughtful and nuanced; loving yet honest.
Given that the Broadway musical was such a smash hit, I should not be surprised that a film remake of the original documentary, as was recently shown on HBO, soon followed. Truthfully, I can almost understand the desire to remake Grey Gardens; a work of such brilliance is sure to inspire its share of devoted followers, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that.
While I have come out against film remakes in the past, I don’t doubt that at least some fraction of them are made not with profit in mind but out of love and devotion to the original. When you remake a fictional film, even if it’s based on true events, you are in effect re-telling a story that was originally told using actors and a set and a script. Your version of Bonnie & Clyde may underline different themes and play up ideas that were less obvious in the original, and that’s fine. Your take is different, but it is recreated under the same circumstances as the original film, and in that regard, your version is just as legitimate.
Remaking a documentary, on the other hand, is not only ludicrous, but also pointless. How can you play up ideas that weren’t sufficiently developed during the original documentary of Grey Gardens, when all of the ideas and themes that existed in the original were introduced by the actual people themselves? Edie Beale and her mother were not actresses. They were performers, certainly, but they were not playing roles. They were being themselves—their own glorious, crazy, tragic selves. Why on earth would I ever want to watch two actresses attempt to portray the Beales, when I can watch the actual Beales? What aspects of their incredible lives could ever be better illuminated by an actor’s mimicry?
Both Little Edie and Big Edie are dead now, and both died in poverty, having seen little financial reward for starring in an incredibly popular documentary that laid bare the trappings of their astonishing lives. In one sense, I understand that a remake of Grey Gardens is supposed to serve as an homage to the Beales. But in a more real sense, I see it as a ghastly exploitation; replicating a documentary that itself bordered on exploitation, no matter how iconic and successful it became in the end. Let these two fearless, haunting women have the last word; see the original Grey Gardens, and skip the remake. As a devoted fan of the original, I plan to.
JILLIAN LOVEJOY LOWERY:
“France fell, but Edie didn’t fall.” – Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale
The 1975 documentary Grey Gardens is indeed a cult classic – a film that is quoted, revered and watched over and over. The Beales are unbelievable characters, astonishing women who are alternately fearless or consumed with fear. You can’t help but fall in love with them both, and your heart will break for them. Their story resonates with viewers, and it’s so easy to become caught up their quirks, foibles and downfalls. Someone wise once advised me to never dislike a person with interesting flaws – and the Beales are some of the most interestingly flawed women ever captured on film.
When HBO announced plans to remake Grey Gardens, I admit I was skeptical, for all of the reasons that Molly outlined above. It felt a little cheap – and the casting of Drew Barrymore as Little Edie troubled me quite a bit. I knew I wanted to watch, to see what this was all about, but I admit to setting my DVR with a pit in my stomach. This had the potential for disaster. I expected to be disappointed.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised.
Molly is correct – the concept of remaking a 30 year old documentary is absurd. HBO’s film was not a remake, rather, but a reimagining. They jumped from decades, showing the Beales as younger women, and then as they were captured by the Maylses brothers during filming. Through the flashbacks, we experience the Edies in happier times, and we witness the events that helped to seal their fate together on East Hampton. This version doesn’t feel any more exploitative than the original – perhaps even less so.
Jessica Lange is transformed into Big Edie, and Barrymore does a fine job as Little Edie (though she never gets the accent quite right). Tinsley Transfers might have stolen the show, however, with their prosthetics and aging makeup. Rarely are aging effects done well, and Tinsley outdid themselves.
Watching HBO’s Grey Gardens, I was moved, drawn into these women. I expected this version of the Beale’s story to feel cold and hollow, but I found this film quite the opposite – a warm, loving, respectful look at two unlikely icons.
I come at this from a very different perspective. This will make me sound downright uneducated after the glowing reviews above, but I had never heard of Grey Gardens until a day or so before the HBO version was broadcast. I didn’t know what it was about, who was in it, didn’t know it was a re-imagining, didn’t know it was on Broadway, and certainly had no idea that it was based on a real documentary. I turned it on because I will watch almost any original programming HBO produces; it is nearly always excellent and Grey Gardens was no exception. It was beautifully produced, well-acted (despite my general dislike of Drew Barrymore), tender and difficult and full of confusing emotions. I wasn’t sure if I should pity the Beales or be happy for them, and in the end those two powerful feelings mixed, curdling into a discomfort that I believe is exactly what its producer intended. A touching and powerful riches-to-rags story told in a very unusual style, which I now know is due to its origins as a documentary. I will see the original, although I’m not sure I can take watching the real Beales after the difficult emotions even their false counterparts stirred up. And now I have to listen to Rufus Wainwright’s “Grey Gardens” again, and maybe have a shot at knowing what he’s singing about.