Drew Barrymore, left, and Jessica Lange as Little Edie and Big Edie in the HBO movie, "Grey Gardens."

Movie Review: Remake of “Grey Gardens”

It was Thanksgiving weekend. Or, days shortening, snow threatening, turkey leftovers torpor-inducing, a good time to lie around and watch movies I missed, all saved up for the future night that was now. Which brings me to Grey Gardens (2009), and the breathtaking performance delivered by Drew Barrymore as Little Edie Bouvier Beale, in HBOs 2009 remake of the eponymous 1975 documentary Grey Gardens by the Maysles.  (It also stars the terrific Jessica Lange as Big Edie, in a performance that draws a line from Frances to the present.)

Drew Barry as Little Edie in the "Grey Gardens" remake

Drew Barry as Little Edie in the "Grey Gardens" remake

Little Edie, for any who have forgotten, was elder cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis). Reported to have been so beautiful that Joe Kennedy, Jacks big brother, proposed to her, and headstrong enough to have refused the marriage. Her mother, Big Edie Beale, with whom she lived alone at the once-family manse, Grey Gardens, from 1952-77, was sister to Jackies dad Black Jack Bouvier. One day in the mid 1970s Jackie, married to Ari Onassis, showed up to see for herself what had become of the cousin and aunt making the newspapers for health-code violations. By then, the Edies were living without heat, amid garbage including mountains of empty cat food tins enjoyed by some 40 felines, and evidently by the humans in residence as well. Little Edie, up in the attic, was unstinting even to the raccoons, pouring out bags of kibble to feed the ravenous.

The "real" Little Edie in the orginal version of  "Grey Gardens"

The "real" Little Edie in the orginal version of "Grey Gardens"

Jackie offered to help. She gave them money to get the house fixed, with the supervision falling upon her sister, Lee Radziwill, who, also living in East Hampton, was paling around with Andy Warhol. Through Radziwill entered the documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, to make the original Grey Gardens, the movie of Big Edie, Little Edie, and the lives they led. Released in 1975  it became a cult classic dominated by the camp wisdom of Little Edie. She gathered her head scarves with brooches, stage-whispered when she didnt want “the servants” to hear, and restaged her still fine-boned beauty with a divadom of inverted skirts and mesh panty hose she would explain the mechanics of. The movie gave the mother and daughter duo who had so craved the stage, their long-sought fame. Calvin Klein took inspiration from Little Edies fashions. Reno Sweeney, a 1970s Greenwich Village club, gave Little Edie a one-woman show.

After Big Edies death in 1977, Little Edie sold Grey Gardens to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn (of the Washington Post). Many people know some or all of the story I have just related.

But what is probably more interesting after all this time is not just the voyeurism of dialect-coaches intriguing Drew Barrymores perfect Little Edie inflections, or the outrageousness of Little Edie asking Jackie, “Is it true that Jack Kennedy gave you gonorrhea?,” but the sense of fading empire resonant throughout. The movie isnt just high camp or entertainment, but a history of America, before Michael Moore stood outside GM, and before food stamps were emblazoned as a 36-point-high headline across yesterdays news sites.

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