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In 1975, the documentary Grey Gardens was released.  It followed the lives of Edith (Big Edie) Beale and Edith (Little Edie) Beale, a mother and daughter who, in their prime, had been part of the extremely wealthy class that summered in East Hampton.  (They were aunt and first cousin to Jackie Kennedy Onassis). The family owned a “summer home” (i.e., mansion) there called Grey Gardens.  As Mr. Beale left Mrs. Beale, then died, she was left alone in the house with only her daughter, and nearly no money.  The house began to fall apart, they were hoarding cats, feeding the raccoons living in the walls and attics, and they sealed themselves off completely from the outside world.

In this film, the documentarians did something that was very unusual for documentaries of the time: they pointed the camera and let the people on screen tell the story in a style known as direct cinema, a style that was pioneered by the directors of the film.  Essentially, “It is said to rely on an agreement among the filmmaker, subjects, and audience to act as if the presence of the camera does not (substantially) alter the recorded event.” (http://www.greygardensonline.com/documentary.html)

The documentary plops you right down in the middle of these women’s lives, without giving you any back story, explanation, or exposition.  You watch these two women, who are a product of an era and lifestyle that no longer exists, living in absolute squalor and bickering constantly.  The only inking that the audience gets about why they live the way they do, or why they are the way they are, is through the women’s explanation as they tell it in the present time.  There’s no research, no photo montages, no backstory. 

And it’s fascinating. And tragic. And endearing. And maddening.

The Beales are, to put it bluntly, train wrecks.  And you can’t help but be fascinated by them, pity them, and laugh at them simultaneously.  These women had shut themselves off from the world for 30 years, allowed their mansion (and their lives) to crumble around them, and they had nobody but each other.  It’s so surreal that it belongs in a Dickens novel.  But it was real life.  It gives voyeuristic insights that are so prevalent in today’s “reality” TV, but without the sensationalism or manufactured drama that usually accompany that “reality.”

This slice-of-dysfunctional-life style of documentary filmmaking seems old hat today, but watching its roots, it’s easy to see how, in many ways, the earlier style was more effective and affecting.  Modern documentarians sometimes have difficulty leaving the camera still for long enough to actually capture life.  They want to use interesting angles and funky lighting.  This is a case when simplicity really is best.  You get to see so much behind the “glossy” façade that Big and Little Edie are trying to put on.  You can see and feel the pain, the regrets, and the love between them.

The direct cinema style shows ALL the flaws, too.  About halfway through the film, I wanted to stab both of the women in the voice box to get them to shut up.  And by the end, I was left with a strong sense of melancholy.  It was just fascinating.

In 2009, Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange joined forced to film an HBO made-for-TV movie (which are usually quite excellently made) also called Grey Gardens.  While the HBO film does recreate some of the scenes from the documentary, they take pains to show the process that drove Big and Little Edie into the state they were in.  We start back the 20s, witnessing Little Edie’s coming out party, up through the events of the documentary and after.  The backstory adds so much to the documentary.  According to the special features, it was quite meticulously researched, and has a real ring of authenticity to it.  I get the feeling that these people’s lives didn’t need a lot of heightening to make good storytelling.

I have always said that Drew Barrymore doesn’t get enough credit for her prodigious talent (which, admittedly, is often underutilized or completely misused), and her performance in this film proves how much she deserves that respect.  Both Lange and Barrymore’s performances in this film are nothing short of astonishing.  But Barrymore, in particular, inhabits the character of Little Edie.  She rounds out the slightly two-dimensional portrayal of Little Edie that you see in the documentary.

Lange is brilliant at all.  It’s like she’s channeling the spirit of Big Edie. 

Also, huge kudos to the makeup, wardrobe, set, and art direction crews on this film.  This is Oscar-worthy work on the technical side.  I mean seriously…look at the two pictures above.  The top one is from 1975, the bottom one from 2009. Brilliant, brilliant work.

This isn’t a film for people who like neat, tied-up little packages of happiness for the closing curtain of their movies.  Much like the documentary, it’s fascinating to watch, but as an actor, I found myself constantly floored by the performances. 

I would recommend both of these films.  Watch the documentary first.  It’s available for streaming on Netflix.  The 2009 TV movie is available as a DVD from Netflix, but not streaming, unfortunately.  They are both really fascinating glimpses into the lives of two women who watched their lives crumble around them.  And it was exponentially more poignant because it wasn’t just based on reality.  It was reality.

  • Jeff (of the Albion variety)

    Hey, Matt. Good review. I have not had the chance to see the documentary, but I’ll definitely add it to my queueueueue. If you haven’t seen it, another great doc available for streaming is Brother’s Keeper. I actually interned with the directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, in NYC for a semester in college. Great film, and another great example of real-life drama unfolding for a unique family in the direct cinema style. Take care.