Grey Gardens: HBO's Movie Based on Famous Feature

In 1973, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles entered the strange world of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, two charming eccentrics who were relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.  Spending six weeks with the reclusive mother and daughter who chose to live in squalor and almost total isolation in a decaying, 28-room mansion in East Hampton, the Maysles captured their day-to-day life in its raw, uncensored, captivatingly honest moments for a documentary entitled “Grey Gardens.”  Little did anyone know that the 100-minute documentary would catapult the two women from virtual obscurity to cult status as their legacy grew in depth and stature over the years.

Thirty-five years later, using the documentary as a framework, director-writer Michael Sucsy’s original story for GREY GARDENS offers a wry, behind-the-scenes look at the Beales and their unique mother-daughter bond.  Told over the span of four decades, the film focuses on their glamorous and well-heeled lives long before the making of the documentary and on the circumstances behind their riches-to-rags story.

Drew Barrymore stars as “Little Edie” and Jessica Lange stars as “Big Edie” in GREY GARDENS, debuting SATURDAY, APRIL 18 at 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT).  Directed by Michael Sucsy from a story by Sucsy and teleplay by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, this HBO Films production recounts the early years of the mother-daughter duo, as well as chronicling the making of the iconic documentary by the Maysles brothers.  Malcolm Gets and Daniel Baldwin co-star, with Ken Howard and Jeanne Tripplehorn.  Lucy Barzun Donnelly, Rachael Horovitz and Michael Sucsy are executive producers; David Coatsworth produces.
Director-writer Michael Sucsy first watched the Maysles’ documentary in 2003 and was instantly captivated by the story of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale.  The documentary covers just six weeks, and Sucsy was eager to know what had transpired before the Maysles’ film.

“Because I’m inherently curious, I just had to find out more,” explains Sucsy.  “The documentary referenced other people and I wanted to know the who and why…and how these other characters fit into the lives of these two eccentric recluses.  I just knew there was a bigger movie here, and there were questions I wanted to know the answers to.”

The story of the Beales seemed to be ripe for the telling.  Coincidentally, at the same time Sucsy began developing the script for GREY GARDENS with executive producer Lucy Barzun Donnelly, the Broadway musical of the same name started to take form, though neither project was initially aware of the other.  Independent of both projects was executive producer Rachael Horovitz, whose longtime appreciation for the documentary inspired her to develop it as a film with Albert Maysles.  Even Jessica Lange had an eye for the story, as she so loved the documentary she had considered developing it as a film project herself, years before Sucsy approached her to play “Big Edie.”

Comments Horovitz, “My mother and I were serious fans of the documentary.  We never missed an airing when it was on TV.  I was amazed to learn that no one had optioned the doc to do a narrative film.  I was just starting to look for a writer when I heard about Michael and Lucy’s project.”

Sucsy, Donnelly and Horovitz ultimately joined forces in their efforts to bring the story of the Beale women to screen, making the documentary a more prominent element in the film.  Albert Maysles was brought on board as an advisor to the production and the final script was submitted to him for his feedback.

Explains executive producer Lucy Barzun Donnelly, “Once it was decided to bring in the documentary as the sort of framing device for the movie, that led to so many more story lines and elements that transformed the narrative and added to it in a wonderful way.”

Intent on filling in the years preceding the documentary, Sucsy began his tireless research – on the Internet, in libraries studying microfilm, tracking down “Little Edie”’s death certificate, which led to the estate attorney and in turn to surviving relatives, and other sources of inspiration.  He was amazed and excited to be given access to all of the journals, letters, poetry, private papers and personal photographs of “Little Edie.”

Sucsy moved to San Francisco for a summer and worked closely with family members as he scoured the materials; he also spoke with friends, neighbors and various people who came in contact with the Beales, and reviewed transcripts of interviews with them.  One friend would refer him to another and then to another and so on in a domino effect.  One such discovery was Eleanor Gaynor, “Little Edie”’s best childhood friend from East Hampton.  Sucsy found her in her 80s, living in Poughkeepsie, NY and corresponded with her via fax machine until she passed away.  Upon her death, her grandson turned over another undiscovered trunk of photographs of the youthful “Little Edie” to Sucsy.

“Everybody had a little piece of their story, and it was my job to bring all those pieces together,” says Sucsy.

These previously undiscovered archives, interviews and other research formed the basis for Sucsy’s original drafts of the script.  Later, when co-writer Patricia Rozema came on board, he supplied her with volumes of primary source materials, all neatly encased in a five-inch-thick three-ring binder.  Rozema was thrilled to have so much research to cull from, and became as dedicated as Sucsy to maintaining the historical accuracy of the story.

In contrast to the Maysles’ documentary,  which spans six weeks in the life of the Beales in 1973, when they were 77 and 56, Sucsy’s story covers 40 years.  The action begins in the mid-1930s, when “Little Edie” was a beautiful 18-year-old debutante with dreams of being an actress and a dancer, and her equally beautiful mother, “Big Edie,” enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in East Hampton, defying convention amidst the social royalty, as she sang in public and threw decadent parties – things not done in the Beales’ social set.  The story then follows “Little Edie” in the ‘50s to New York City, where she tries to launch her acting career and carries on an affair with a married man – Julius “Cap” Krug (Daniel Baldwin), former Secretary of the Interior – only to be forced to return to Grey Gardens by her disapproving father (Ken Howard).  Next, the Beales are shown in the ‘60s as they deal with a death in the family – that of President John F. Kennedy.  The last decade of the story focuses on the ‘70s – when the reclusive mother and daughter, living in squalor, are financially rescued by Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn).  Niece to “Big Edie” and cousin to “Little Edie,” Jackie pays to repair the decaying mansion, keeping them from being evicted by the health department.  At this time the Maysles first capture the Beales on camera, at the invitation of Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill.  A year later, the Maysles (Arye Gross, Justin Louis) return to Grey Gardens for six weeks to film their historic documentary.

The herculean efforts of the cast and crew were not wasted on Sucsy, who says, “What an amazing cast! 
‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ are very difficult women to inhabit.  The challenge to get them right sets the bar very high.  Both Drew and Jessica not only met, but exceeded, my expectations.  With the hours and hours spent with dialect lessons, and singing lessons and the hours they spent in makeup every day, they just completely threw themselves into preparing for these roles.  And the supporting actors – Jeanne and Daniel and Ken.  To see actors come in and breathe life into these characters that are based on real people has been such a thrill.

 “To see other people dedicate themselves as hard to this project as I’ve been working on it was overwhelmingly gratifying,” he adds.  “To see the crew come together to make the whole process as accurate as possible…the painstaking detail of the art department and the wardrobe department, the authentic sets and costumes, the details from the doorknobs to the moldings to the number of stairs to the number of diamond paned windows to the size of house…the outfits for the Edies, the props, the jewelry, all that…it is truly fantastic.”

Albert and David Maysles screened the first cut of their documentary for the Beales at Grey Gardens on a makeshift screen hung on the wall.  “Little Edie” paced around nervously a bit afterwards, then turned to the brothers and enthusiastically raved about the film, seeing it as her opportunity to relaunch her performing career.  As seen in this film, the brothers hosted “Little Edie” at the film’s New York premiere in 1976, where she received a standing ovation.  Thirty years later, Albert Maysles released “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” a film that included previously unreleased footage shot for the original documentary.

Commenting on HBO’s GREY GARDENS, Albert Maysles says, “What’s interesting about the film is that it takes you back so you get a peek at what their life was.”  Asked how “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” would like this new film, he replies with a smile, “That, of course, is the ultimate question in evaluating the film.  What would Edie and her mother think of it?  I think they would like it!”