Grey Gardens (2009)
The 1975 documentary on which this biopic is based was filmed by Albert and David Maysles in the direct camera technique. It’s a confronting piece of film, in which the eccentricities of two faded beauties are unflinchingly paraded before us. Now considered a classic of documentary storytelling, it was at the time of its release criticised in some quarters for manipulating and exploiting its subjects. This biopic’s major success is its provision of context, not just by creating a backstory but also in eliciting two marvellous performances that truly flesh out their characters.
On a dimly lit landing of a derelict East Hampton mansion, the Maysles brothers preview their latest film for an elderly lady and her middle-aged daughter. Both named Edith Bouvier Beale, it is Little Edie’s image that is being screened on a bed-sheet, exuberantly dancing for the Maysles’ camera. While she is overjoyed with the footage, Big Edie is a little more circumspect, concerned that her daughter does not see herself as other people do. The biopic then flashes back to 1936, where the Beales are preparing to present their daughter to New York society. Despite appearances, all is not well in the Beale household and the film’s exploration of the intervening years allows glimpses as to why mother and daughter are now living in squalor.
By thankfully avoiding any pap explanation, Lange and Barrymore are both given room to breathe life into performances that take them beyond their pitch-perfect impersonations. Fans of the documentary may lap up the faithful recreations, but it is the film’s knowing nods to ‘roads less travelled’ that resonate. Lange’s Big Edie reveals the staunch woman who not only had her cake but loved it, masticated it, chewed it and damned the consequences. Though it would be easy to see Barrymore’s Little Edie as the long suffering daughter who sacrificed her dreams, she imbues her character with enough vulnerability to suggest the interdependence at play.
Far more than just a companion piece, Grey Gardens supplements the documentary and allows for a greater appreciation of the original work, confirming Big Edie’s observation that “It’s all in the movie”.
Edith and Phelan Beale separated in 1931, at least five years before its depiction in the film.