In 1973, documentary filmmaking brothers Albert Maysles and David Maysles decide to change the focus of their latest project from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to her aunt and older cousin, mother and daughter Edith Bouvier Beale - called Big Edie - and Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beale, who were found living in squalor and isolation in the longtime family mansion, Grey Gardens, in East Hampton, New York. Through flashbacks starting in 1936, the path mother and daughter take from their socialite past to the time that the Mayles brothers show their completed film is shown. Big Edie's husband/Little Edie's father, Phelan Beale, controlled the family money, which included providing singing lessons to Big Edie with musician Gould Strong, with who she had more than a musical interest. Big Edie saw herself as a singer, first and foremost. Mother and father also controlled Little Edie's life, they who wanted her to stay at Grey Gardens rather than pursue her dream of becoming a professional ... Written by
Filling in the missing pieces in this bittersweet tale of love and loss
The psychological exploration of the Maysles' film of Grey Gardens was riveting, disturbing, entertaining, but ultimately confusing. Who in the world were these colorful-sad women, living in genuinely shocking conditions. Were they mentally ill--was it a put-on--there were so many missing pieces--that those of us who saw the film in the 70s have always remembered this strange sad tale--a sort of benign "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" kind of tale of lost souls--lost to the world, lost in their own memories and (to us) bizarre fantasy world.
The HBO film fills in many of the pieces--with heartbreaking detail. Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore are nothing short of astonishing in their reincarnation of this tragic mother and daughter duo. We see their elegance, their fragility, the tricks that life played on them--with vivid detail. The easy fluidity between the past and the present makes for a riveting drama that resonates almost as much as the original documentary. But there is a difference--in the documentary, there was much more humor--Big Edie and Little Edie were characters, and you felt sorry for them--yet you really noticed their resilience and delight at life. Yes they were caught up in the past with their obsessive dwelling on events from that distant golden age of their's--but they also seemed to relish their relationship, their day-to-day coping, their ice cream, their animals--it was really not THAT sad! The movie is much more heartbreaking--because we see the glamorous lives they led--and the contrast with the emptiness of their final denouement in Grey Gardens feels overwhelmingly sad. We suspected that especially Little Edie was mentally ill in the original--delusional--paranoid. In the film, there is no doubt. She was helpless from the beginning.
Pieces have been filled in--but there are still empty pieces that abound--the role Little Edie's brothers had or didn't have in their lives, how the wealthy relatives so completely ignored or were unaware of their living conditions--why the Edies so completely retreated from the "real world" when people with much more heartbreaking situations (and much less of a moneyed background) can not only cope but overcome---these are all still mysteries which will probably never be answered--can only be speculated upon--and which will allow "Grey Gardens"--both the documentary, and now the film--to retain an enduring mystique and fascination.
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