Grey Gardens: Tale Told in Various Formats and Mediums (Musical too)

Offbeat and bizarre yet touching and engrossing, HBO’s telefilm Grey Gardens, inspired by the 1973 seminal documentary, relates the dysfunctional relationship between Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beal, splendidly played by Jessica Lange as the elder and Drew Barrymore as the junior.

The story of Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, members of the American aristocracy who ended their lives in misery as social misfits, has been the subject of in every possible medium, as a seminal documentary, Broadway musical, and now HBO film. It’s a touching, painful portrait of co-dependency seldom depicted with such vivid and scary candor

Directed by Michael Sucsy, who co-wrote with Patricia Rozema, HBO’s “Grey Gardens” will premiere April 18, and then repeated in the course of the next month. Make sure to watch it, it’s first rate-entertainment. Even by standards of HBO, which are high, the movie is well-crafted, paying attention to small details not only in characterization and performance but also in sets, costumes, music, and other elements.

First came the 1975 documentary made by the distinguished team of Albert and David Maysles, Susan Froemke, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, which described lives of two social misfits, who lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit 28-room mansion at West End Avenue in the wealthy Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton, New York.

Grey Gardens was purchased in 1923 by Phelan Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, which she then occupied for over 50 years.  Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The two women lived together at Grey Gardens in squalor and total seclusion.

On one level, HBO’s “Grey Gardens” is a love story between two women who take refuge from the world in each other’s company—to the bitter end. On another, it’s a devastating tale of downward mobility, centering on the decline and demise of blue blood Americans, the closest we have to aristocracy in this country.

The filmmakers don’t claim or pretend to understand the key question: How could a distinguished family allow a beautiful young debutante and her equally beautiful and socially inclined mother, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis no less, to become crazy old ladies, occupying a dilapidated estate, populated by more cats than there must have been in the entire town.

While the screenplay leaves something to be desired, the performances and the whole production are so accomplished that they almost make up for some of the narrative weaknesses. Like many of us, director-producer Michael claims he is a fan of the original documentary. To that extent, he has decided to recreate scenes from that work and also build into the scenario the characters of the filmmakers themselves, Albert and David Maysles (played by Arye Gross, Justin Long), though not too successfully.

The film is at its most powerful and engaging, when centering on the mother and daughter bond, from the early years, in the 1930s, when Little Edie, then 18, wished to be a star, and her mother, Big Edie, a socialite used to be the center of attention, often performing song-and-dance numbers at high-class parties.

“You’re the mother of my children, not a showgirl,” says husband Phelan (Ken Howard) before deserting his wife and their children. The boys leave the house as soon as they mature. From that point on, the two women seem to be emotionally and socially “doomed,” fated to be co-dependent on each other for the rest of their lives.

There are efforts to escape, though. Deluding herself that it would lead to marriage, Little Edie engages in an adulterous affair with married man (Daniel Baldwin), which ends badly, as most of these dangerous liaisons do. Big Mama resent that fact that she’s left alone in the huge, empty house, finding all kinds of ways to keep busy, like collecting stray cats and naming and feeding each one of them, even though the budget is at best limited.

Economics feature prominently: The women exhaust their trust fund (sort of monthly allowance), despite the sons’ warnings. But Big Edie wouldn’t move out of the house, showing the kind of attachment and commitment to the property that would make Scarlett O’Hara and her Tara proud.

The time frame spans about four decades, from 1933 to 1973 to be exact. By the time the Maysles and their team arrive, in 1972, the women have become complete recluse and the targets of jokes and criticism by the community. In the early 1970s, their living conditions were so appalling (and unsanitary) that they received an extensive coverage in the press, first in an essay in the National Enquirer and then in a major cover story in New York magazine.

This coverage–and the lineage to Jackie O.—led to a series of inspections, which the mother and daughter team referred to as “raids,” by the Suffolk County Health Department. With the Beale women facing eviction and the razing of their house, Jacqueline Onassis (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, who has one scene and a thankless role) provided necessary funds to repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet codes.

The film smacks of theatricality, and for good reasons: Most of the scenes are intimate and set indoors–claustrophobia and alienation are major themes of the work.

Nonetheless, the acting of the two women is superb, though, ultimately, the telepic belongs to Drew Barrymore, who owns the bigger and splashier part. We associate Barrymore with light parts in frivolous romantic comedies opposite Adam Sandler or Hugh Grant, but here, endowed with a terrifically dramatic role, she rises to the occasion and dominates almost every scene she is in. For her part, Jessica Lange is more compelling in the later chapter, as an eccentric elderly lady, with gestures and giggles to match, which is not a minor feat considering the heavy makeup she is required to wear.

End Note:
The house itself, a cottage of 14 rooms and 3 bathrooms, was designed by Joseph Greenleaf Thorpe in 1897 and completed several years later. The grey color of the dunes and the hue of the cement garden walls are responsible for the name of the estate. “Big Edie” died in 1977 and “Little Edie” sold the house in 1979 to former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife Sally Quinn, who then completely restored it. “Little Edie” died in 2002 at the age of 84.
In 2006, Albert Maysles made available previously unreleased footage for a special Criterion 2-disc edition, including a feature titled, “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” which also received limited theatrical distribution.

The Maysles docu has been adapted into a musical, “Grey Gardens,” with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. Starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, the show premiered at Playwrights Horizons in February 2006, before reopening on Broadway in November 2006 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, winning a Tony Award for costume design and acting kudos for both Ebersole and Wilson. As the first Broadway show adapted from a serious documentary, the musical closed July 29, 2007.


“Little Edie” Beale – Drew Barrymore
“Big Edie” Beale – Jessica Lange
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – Jeanne Tripplehorn
Phelan Beale – Ken Howard
Julius “Cap” Krug – Daniel Baldwin
George “Gould” Strong – Malcolm Gets
Albert Maysles – Arye Gross
David Maysles – Justin Long


Filmed in Ontario, Canada by Specialty Films and Locomotive.
Executive producers, Lucy Barzun Donnelly, Rachael Horovitz, Michael Sucsy.
Producer, David Coatsworth.
Director, Sucsy
Screenplay: Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, based on a story by Sucsy.
Camera: Mike Eley.
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov.
Editors: Alan Heim, Lee Percy.
Music: Rachel Portman.
Makeup: Bill Corso.
Casting: Ellen Parks.

Running Time: 105 Minutes.