There really is mostly no point in making any kind of a movie about the women of Grey Gardens, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. The women themselves are enough so that any kind of remake or homage seems beside the point. After all, the 1975 Maysles brothers’ documentary captures the real thing — we see them as they are. Their history is recounted through their memories of their ill-fated lives. There is drama, spectacle, humor and great costumes designed by Little Edie.Still, there is a desire to remake these things. There was a Grey Gardens Broadway musical and now there is an HBO film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. And it is better than anyone thought it would be, better because of the total commitment of its two stars. At some point in the first five minutes of Grey Gardens it is impossible to tell if you’re looking at Lange and Barrymore or the Beales so exact and flawless are their performances. They did not just do imitations, though: they dug up the vulnerability that is just barely there in the documentary.What the film, directed by Michael Sucsy, attempts to do is fill in the back-story of what happened to Little Edie to drive her into the clutches of her needy, controlling mother. She wanted to be a singer and a dancer rather than get married and since that never happened, or because her mother feared losing her or watching her grow, Edie went to live with mom and never returned to her own life. The two cut themselves off from the world with no TV, just each other and their many, many cats.It probably would never have been brought to light, this bizarre and captivating tale, had the Beales not been relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnassis. Little Edie’s first cousin and Big Edie’s niece was the anchor that drove the press and the public fascination. But that would have been enough to tell one story, maybe one chapter in Jackie O’s book. The Beales, however, are so utterly entertaining that their influence rages even today.The film is a soft-shoe of the two women, however. Missing was the strange man who lurked on the grounds for who knows what purpose. Missing was Little Edie’s obsession with getting married, which she continually chatters about in the documentary. And missing was “the crazy” in Edie’s eyes. Little Edie is the force that drives both the documentary and the film, with Big Edie as the villain, perhaps. But Little Edie has a part of her that was never going to be tamed and that is the part, the indulgent part, that trapped her at Grey Gardens.Both Little Edie and Big Edie were bred for marriage – what else could they do? Yet they wanted life on their own terms. They certainly were never going to get an actual job so who was to support them? Even Jackie was entirely dependent upon the men in her life. Once Big Edie’s husband left and the money dried up, the Beales were at a material and psychological dead end. Even if you don’t have a fascination with the Beales of Grey Gardens, the film is worth a look because of Lange and Barrymore’s beautiful and memorable renderings of these two strange and lost icons.
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