Jessica Lange Lights Up 'Grey Gardens' on HBO

HBO's "Grey Gardens," stars Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The film spans four decades and tells how the pair went from riches-to-rags. Video by HBO
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Edith and Edie Beale, commonly called Big Edie and Little Edie, have the potential to be ridiculously pathetic characters, a mother and daughter living on dreams and delusions in the midst of rot and ruin -- and dozens of cats.

But "Grey Gardens," the new HBO movie about the lives of Jackie Kennedy's reclusive relatives, though exquisitely poignant much of the time, never surrenders to mere sorrow. Nor does it go the opposite route and reduce the definitively eccentric Edies to a pair of wacky weirdos out of a Hollywood Gothic. They achieve instead a daft dignity; by the standards they devise for the isolated realm they create, they are contented and fulfilled.

Edith and Edie turn their backs on reality and, to a large degree, shut out the world. But heck, reality and the world are both overrated.

It would be a pleasure to report that the film, which stars the iridescent Jessica Lange and the adorably sexy Drew Barrymore, is a duet by two of our greatest actors. But they're more like one-and-a-half of our greatest actors; Barrymore tries valiantly but struggles with the upper-crust accent -- sounding Brooklynesque when lamenting, "Oh, Gawd, another win-tuh" -- and she can't quite decide whether Little Edie is clever or confounded. And yet the pleasure of Barrymore's company remains rewarding.

Besides, any performer would have a tough time holding a candle to, much less outshining, Lange, whose Big Edie is a kind of benign incarnation of Dickens's Miss Haversham, embittered by those who disappoint her and eventually withdrawing into a cloud of her own creation but maintaining a cheerfully oblivious, la-di-da demeanor. Lange is still beautiful even when decked out in heavy character makeup and elaborate prosthetics, playing Edie from her youth through her last years on earth, a joy to watch at every stage, even during the least joyful moments of the Beales' batty existence.

Jeanne Tripplehorn does a beautiful job of playing Jackie, but she doesn't show up until the film's second hour and then for only about 10 minutes. What makes the Beales fascinating is not whose auntie Big Edie happens to be, though the world would probably have little noted them were they not celebrity-related.

Nor would it have had a chance to meet them if not for brilliant documentary filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, whose 1975 film, "Grey Gardens," revealed the mother and daughter in all their intriguing eccentricity and flabbergasting squalor. The Maysles boys are portrayed in the film and, perhaps partly because Albert was an adviser to the production, come off as entirely earnest social chroniclers, not two guys who found a deliciously exploitable subject. The film caused a sensation and established the Beales as supremely curious cultural icons.

The film opens at Manhattan's lush but homey Pierre hotel in the winter of 1936. Little Edie flees a party in her honor and, to her mother's irritation, flits about in the street. "I want to be an actress and a dancer," she says, repeating that ambition several times during the film but never really taking the serious steps necessary to achieving it. Terminally naive and sexually calculating, she thinks she can wish herself onto the stage and into the spotlight, or perhaps sleep her way to glory.

We see her "nightclub act" under the closing credits; it's a well-intentioned horror. She hasn't even bothered to learn the correct lyrics to "Tea for Two," the addictive ditty that's something of a theme song for her.

The script, by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy, hops around in time between 1936 and 1973, when the Maysles brothers showed up and were granted permission to film. In the early '50s, back when Judy Holliday was the Broadway baby of the moment, Little Edie got it into her cranium that she would be Holliday's successor. She imagines that by merely acting kooky, as Holliday did in the play and film versions of "Born Yesterday," she can achieve the renown persistently eluding her.

Ken Howard appears in a few scenes as Phelan Beale, who marries Big Edie; it's one of those classically ill-fated Dull Male/Flamboyant Female arrangements seemingly common among the well-to-do. Daniel Baldwin plays Julius Krug, a married rat who breaks Little Edie's heart, though it heals rather quickly.

But in a way, this is a two-character work, and the two characters are not Big and Little Edie -- not exactly. The two women, who often seem more like sisters than mother and daughter, could be seen as the same person, one self-deluding individual, with the other character in the story being Grey Gardens itself, a house with an aura of its own, a habitat in tony East Hampton, N.Y., so cherished by the matriarchal Edith that she vows only to leave it "feet first."

When crushing defeats arise, Edith seeks solace and comfort in the house and the acres of protective, isolating land around it in. "You can travel the whole world, and you'll still never find anything as beautiful as right here," she tells her daughter, later calling it, "the most beautiful place on earth." The house seems eternal, even though county health inspectors considered having it torn down, so pervasively had neglect tarnished it and kitties littered its crannies.

The place is as mythic as the two stubborn lost souls who inhabited it for much of a deeply troubled century, and it seems imbued with a natural symbolism of its own -- a great lady who keeps facing disaster and escaping it, or imagining that she has. "Grey Gardens" is tragicomedy of a very rare and rarefied kind -- priceless, precious and, thanks largely to Lange, potentially unforgettable.

Grey Gardens (two hours) airs tonight at 8 on HBO.

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