Michael Sucsy, Grey Gardens (detail), 2009, color film in 35 mm. Production still. “Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessia Lange) and “Little” Edith Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore). Photo: Peter Stranks/HBO.


NEW YORK IS ABOUT NOTHING if not the gamble of promise, the stakes that can put people in the jackpot or in bankruptcy. Stories unfolding here, however many their convolutions and fine points, are mainly pulled along by that idea of possibility on which the city was founded. What the characters Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, play out is the fear, constantly bracing New York, that to move away is to cut oneself off from possibility, to leave the dream stunted. But that is only partially the truth. There is a greater fear the story taps: that the dream is only a fantasy, that promise is only an intoxicant, and that one is driving inebriated to an end in which, to be perverse, shards of the dream get lodged in the head like windshield glass.

The story clearly resonates. It has, after all, been told many times and in many ways, facilitating something of an industry. Most famously, the Bouvier Beales themselves told it, in 1974, for the documentary Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles, earning them permanent places as “Big Edie“ and “Little Edie” in whichever realm spawns Halloween costumes and drag personae. It has since been told in a second film by the Maysles brothers, in a memoir written by a Bouvier Beale acquaintance, in several picture books, in countless fashion collections, and in the requisite Broadway musical. Now there is Grey Gardens, the HBO drama. Starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. A prequel, of sorts.

This, again, is a story of withdrawal, and the new movie tracks the forty years that the original imparts only in pieces. Phelan Beale gets a Mexican divorce from Big Edie, a would-be singer, leaving her to live with her accompanist in the house in East Hampton, Grey Gardens. Her inheritance from her father dwindles (the sum had been reduced after she attended her son's wedding in opera costume) along with the affections of her accompanist, who eventually leaves, too. Big Edie calls Little Edie, a would-be star of stage or screen, back from New York, where she has been living at the Barbizon, planning “to audition,” and seeing a married man who happens to be secretary of the interior. Here the clock stops, in 1952. The house falls past the point of quaint disrepair, into condemnation. After a public to-do, Big Edie’s niece, who happens to be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, donates several thousand dollars to the cause of renovation.

Michael Sucsy, Grey Gardens (detail), 2009, color film in 35 mm. Production still. “Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessia Lange) and “Little” Edith Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore). Photo: Peter Stranks/HBO.


Which is around where the Maysleses’ cameras enter, and around where the thrust of the HBO narrative ends (though scenes reenacting the documentary’s filming are intercut throughout). The two Edies, wound tight around each other, are at this point passing their days feeding their menagerie of cats and raccoons “luncheon,” bickering and listening to old recordings of Big Edie, holding up one memory against the other, trying to make an attractive picture. In a light harder than that which fades Long Island shingles gray, the two might be Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson. Having lacked the objective view for decades, they are now an assortment of idiosyncrasies, best illustrated by Little Edie’s “costumes”: towels or scarves wrapped around her head to cover her thinned hair; shorts under fishnets under skirts that can, she reveals, double as capes.

The path that Grey Gardens, in its many incarnations, has followed is that ironic tract that is our cultural digestive system, the same cycle that recently put Frank and April Wheeler up on screen as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In this instance, two women find their spirits cracked enough that they can become not only the stars they wanted to be, at least versions of them, but also characters eagerly pursued (if we trust the interviews) by two much more popular stars. And it is unnerving the extent to which, in the HBO movie, these characters have been inhabited, particularly Big Edie by Jessica Lange. The way she carries the mannerisms through scenes that have no parallel in the original (which is where her counterpart is best, in studied mimicry) is shocking. This production is not about “interpretation” but about immaculate reflection.

It is actually quite a production, for all the prosthetics, vocal coaches (to teach that New York-by-way-of-Farmington dialect), and set dressers. There are the brass coffee tables and the floral wallpapers, the chipped dressers and the oriental rugs. The piano duets and the parties and the highballs in mason jars. The lit lamps, the set tables. All the familiar things that would give way to the animals infesting, the walls and ceilings crumbling, the sixty-year-old English ivy growing over the windows, thriving dry. This new movie insists on that dramatic trajectory, seeming meant to satisfy our need to know, as with any sad scenario, what went wrong where, and how does the story diverge from our own.

But part, a major part, of what drives the original Grey Gardens is all that is missing. What can the facts of this history tell us, anyway? What could possibly lead a mother and a daughter to retreat into a house for decades, away from everybody? What could lead a young woman to dance all day to the Virginia Military Institute march? “Divorce” wouldn’t justify that. Neither would a mother’s loneliness. The flaws of the Edies that are tragic are not really literary, however much they recall, say, Miss Havisham, because the characters are elliptical to the core; they are repositories of broken images, broken memories, misidentifications. The refrain of “Tea for Two.” The soft-shoeing in the parlor. The hyperbole, and apoplexy. (“The most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America.”) When in the dramatization Little Edie returns to New York for the Grey Gardens premiere and throws her bouquet of white roses into the audience, we pass the scene off as typical Hollywood closure, which it is. But there the incident is found, in the newspaper archives. Little Edie’s cabaret act at Reno Sweeney seems the too-obvious finale to this vaudevillian performance. But that happened, too. When Big Edie declines comment to a newspaper reporter, saying, “It’s all in the movie,” we can only roll our eyes. But that one, I think, was written up somewhere as well. We come away knowing that these are people born of screen, and that is where their tragedy lies.

Grey Gardens premieres on HBO Saturday, April 18, at 8 PM. For more information and other showtimes, click here.

Kyle Bentley