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Studio: HBO Video
Year: 2009
Cast: Jessica Lange, Drew Barrymore, Malcolm Gets, Daniel Baldwin, Ken Howard, Jeanne Trippelhorn
Director: Michael Sucsy
Release Date: July 27, 2009, 11:29 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:43m:47s

"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Awfully difficult." - Little Edie (Drew Barrymore)

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You and the night and the musicóthe Beales and the Maysles get the narrative treatment.

Movie Grade: B

DVD Grade: B

Um, why? This is a respectfully produced, handsomely mounted and well-acted movie made by talented people, but the animating impulse of it still seems like something of a mystery, or not really well thought out. The documentary of the same name has garnered cult status since its initial releaseóthe Edies as patron saints of familial dysfunction, as icons of gay camp, as the seamy underbelly of Camelot. They've even inspired a Broadway musical, and here get their story dramatized by HBO. It's hard to imagine someone making sense of this film without having seen the documentary first; it's even harder to conjure up those who would have an interest if they hadn't already had more than a passing familiarity with the true story. The result, then, is a weirdly interesting palimpsest, but that's about all.

If you're not already up on all things Beale, here's your primer: Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, mother and daughter, were cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and became tabloid fodder in the late 1960s, when these relatives of the former First Lady were living in squalor in their once-grand mansion on Long Island. (The name of the house is the name of this film.) Cousin Jackie, married to Aristotle Onassis at the time, swooped in with some financial relief, and the story got out of the gossip columns; all the money in the world couldn't mend the psychological shards that were strewn around that house, though. Enter the Mayslesóbrothers Albert and David, accomplished documentarians, convinced the Edies to allow a film to be made about them. The result is one of the most harrowing things you'll ever see, like a Eugene O'Neill play come to life. The Beales live in a home crawling with cats and raccoons, all blithely urinating everywhere; the women are forced into a small portion of the once-grand manor, eating what little food they can afford out of tin cans, and spinning the same lies and pipe dreams about their past. (If you haven't seen it, you've really got no excuse; Criterion's DVD release is fantastic.)

The generosity of this project, I guess, is that it restores the Beale women to all their gloryówith mother as the great lady, her daughter and namesake as the fetching debutante. And it's kind of a stunning physical production, reproducing the Beales, both in their heyday and at their nadir, with meticulous accuracy and specificity. The film cuts between the eras, and of course the big question is just how and why they fell, and fell, and fell. There's no dime-store psychological answer to the hobbling of either Edie, thankfully; we get a few representative episodes, and are asked to connect the dots ourselves. Ken Howard is perfectly weary as the man of the house, who runs out on the lunacy; Daniel Baldwin is stolid as Edie's onetime beau, a married man in Harry Truman's cabinet; Jeanne Tripplehorn is breathy and guarded in a brief appearance as Mrs. Onassis.

Particularly high praise goes to Drew Barrymore, who demonstrates range and acting chops that she hasn't had the opportunity to display before. She clearly was an attentive student with her vocal coach, and has Little Edie's often peculiar diction down patóshe may not be quite the free spirit and the bohemian that she wishes in her younger years, but she wants so badly to be that the image of her decline is deeply moving. Similarly, Jessica Lange's gifts frequently go underappreciated, perhaps the fate of anyone who looks as good as she does. You've got to admire her ambition, tooóin recent years she's played Mary Tyrone and Amanda Wingfieldóand her Big Edie is sort of a variation on a distinctly American theme, the damaged mother merrily if unintentionally inflicting psychological damage on her children. If you've seen the Maysles' film, you'll occasionally gasp at just how right they got it all.

The commentary track, with director/co-writer/exec producer Michael Sucsy and his executive producer colleagues, Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz, goes over all of the research and reconstruction that went into this, and demonstrates what a labor of love it was for so many. And Grey Gardens: Then and Now (11m:20s) is a brief promo piece with Lange, Barrymore and Albert Maysles, and a few brief glimpses of the documentary.

Jon Danziger July 27, 2009, 11:29 am