While there’s no doubt that life is always tougher for the have-nots, there’s something unique to the historically thwarted lives of all women that tends to cross class lines. And the film Grey Gardens, based in part on the 1975 Maysles Brothers cult documentary of the same name, connects with both extraordinary candor and empathy, to the simultaneously mother/daughter pampered and deformed idle rich personalities of those eccentric Jackie Kennedy kin.
The directing debut of Michael Sucsy and co-written with the supremely gifted Patricia Rozema (Kit Kittredge, I Hear The Mermaids Singing), Grey Gardens seamlessly glides back and forth through time beginning with the Great Depression era, as it charts the rise and fall of these Hamptons, Long Island high society women wierdly oblivious to the Crash of ’29, and why. Drew Barrymore, in perhaps the most stellar performance of her career, believably spans the many decades as ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, the unhappy sheltered daughter of Edith Beale (Jessica Lange) and an absentee patrician lawyer (Ken Howard).
In accordance with pre-feminist bourgeois conventions, both mother and daughter were primed to lead passive lives in maximum security gilded cages, despite their musical and performing talents and painful yearnings to creatively blossom. Unhappy Little Edie, named after her own mother and essentially relegated to living in mom’s own dejected shadow, opts for her fifteen minutes of youthful rebellion, by escaping to New York City to pursue fame. But after a heartbreaking affair with a married man (Daniel Baldwin), Little Edie is rounded up by Dad and sent back home, where she spends the rest of her days in mutual deepening madness with Mom, and emotional and financial abandonment by the family patriarch for another woman. And with mother and daughter psychologically doomed in their failure to find men ‘who will give you a long leash.’
And while these two exceptional women were pressured by their social miliue to abandon any dreams of self-actualization and independence, when they’re ironically left to their own devices after being forced into lives of pampered perpetual children, they naturally haven’t a clue. Eventually after complaints from neighbors and visits by health department officials to their now foul smelling and dilapidated sprawling Grey Gardens mansion, filled with animal excrement and mountains of garbage, no heat or hot water and cats cohabitating with raccoons, an embarrassed Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is somewhat shamed by the media into stopping by and saving them from squalor.
Drew gives a never less than intoxicating and heartbreaking performance, as a fantasy screen goddess/showgirl turned eccentric hermit womanchild gone bald and wandering around in minks and artistically accessorized rags. And who along with her only and best friend Mom is so out of touch with the real world around them, that they astonish as near mutant specimens of the women they might have been. Consigned to their lifelong imaginary world while playing at being alive, these two coulda-beens, save for having been born female and long before Youtube which might have been their salvation, simply endure. But not without delightfully crafted charisma.
Grey Gardens: Brother, Can You Spare A Diamond Tiara.
HBO Home Entertainment
3 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Audio Commentary With Director Michael Sucsy And Producers Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachel Horovitz; Featurette: Grey Gardens Then And Now, With 1975 Documentary Clips And Interviews With Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange And Albert Maysles.