In the early ‘70s, the Maysle brothers made the original Grey Gardens, a still-notorious documentary about the spectacularly dirty, decayed mansion in East Hampton that “Little Edie” Beale shared with her mother, Big Edie, and it’s easy to see why people became obsessed with the seedy spectacle of the two ruined gentlewomen and thwarted artists who labored to make themselves interesting for the camera. Little Edie was funny, but it’s always been an open question whether we were laughing at her or with her; some have decried the Maysles for taking advantage of two women who seemed highly disturbed. Watching Little Edie do a “military” marching dance was like seeing a toddler trotted out to entertain the adults at a party, only this toddler happened to be a middle-aged woman desperately trying to claim attention in any way possible. More obviously exploitative were scenes where Little Edie became upset about her missed chances, laying into her impervious mother while the Maysles egged her on behind the camera.
The raw material of the Maysles’ movie provided a fine showcase for Christine Ebersole and Mary-Louise Wilson when they did a musical version of Grey Gardens on stage; it was a career performance for Ebersole, who created a touchingly empathetic portrait of Little Edie. In this further exploration of the Beales, also called Grey Gardens, Drew Barrymore brings her innate likeability to Little Edie, which helps to put over the film’s view of her as a kind of improbably triumphant freak. It begins with the Maysles showing the Beales their movie: Little Edie watches that embarrassing military dance while Big Edie (Jessica Lange) looks on, tolerantly, shrewdly. Right away, we see that Big Edie is much more aware of what’s going on than her daughter, yet Little Edie has several moments here where she’s very savvy about selling her image. The film tries to clarify our questions and doubts about the original documentary by portraying the Beales as underground con artists who use their outsized eccentricities to get what they want.
While this is certainly an intriguing interpretation of these divisive women, I can’t help remembering moments from the documentary where they quite clearly don’t know what they’re doing, especially in the case of Little Edie, who often seemed like she needed a psychiatrist much more than a camera crew. The Beales were women who required servants and unlimited money to maintain their vision of themselves as bohemian art patrons and performers; with almost no money, they stubbornly clung to those dreams and paid the price for it. In this new movie, Little Edie accosts her cousin Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) in much the same way she accosts the Maysles’ camera, and she seems like an aggressive, shameless expert at claiming pity. It’s that shamelessness that makes Barrymore’s Little Edie fun to watch, whereas the real woman seen in the Maysles documentary is a fairly depressing person beneath the surface verve.
Scenes from the Beales’ early life aren’t particularly well written, but there’s a sudden flash of insight when Little Edie approaches the famed theatrical producer Max Gordon, doing an early version of the military dance for him while the snooty people around him give her dirty looks. Barrymore makes us see that Little Edie’s performing urge had some charm when she was a younger woman, and the film posits that she might have been a first-rate comedienne if she could have learned to have a bit more control over herself and her effects. Instead, she flees home to Grey Gardens and her mother after being rejected by her married lover (Daniel Baldwin). Eventually, Little Edie makes herself a monument to lost opportunities, a kind of Warhol superstar in seclusion, and the film ends with her infamous cabaret act at Reno Sweeney’s in the late ‘70s, which is seen as a final epiphany for her. It’s a sweet idea, but I don’t buy it any more than I can buy the final scene between the Edies, where Big Edie is practically omniscient in her ability to see the big picture of their lives together.
Sensitive and well acted as this new Grey Gardens is, it feels like a wish-fulfillment fantasy that gives Little Edie a happy ending; the truth of this woman’s life must have been much grimmer and messier. As an instinctive connoisseur of her own exploitation, Little Edie would have loved this movie; if a film could be made that Little Edie wouldn’t have liked, we might get closer to the truth. Then again, attention of any kind seems to have been all Little Edie wanted. She’s the Jayne Mansfield to Jackie’s Garbo, the imp locked up in the basement of high society. If she was still imprisoned with Big Edie now, surely we’d be getting YouTube videos from Grey Gardens, plus a blog on today’s “revolutionary” outfit filled with musings on her once-promising past. Little Edie’s exhibitionism both attracts and repels me, just as I am attracted and repelled by blog culture, where everybody shows their ass and their emotional scars as if they have the same value. What’s missing in all this excessive sharing and spewing is structure, the hallmark of true art. Grey Gardens attempts to create some structure for Little Edie, but her real value lies in the disorder of her reckless, diseased emotions and what they reveal about the “Look at me!” urges of life’s inevitable losers.