The original film by Albert and David Maysles is an unscripted direct cinema film about a mother and daughter who live in squalor in the titular collapsing mansion in East Hampton. The women are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (they are referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively). The two women fight, worry over their cats, fight, worry over the city of East Hampton taking legal action to get them out of their cat and raccoon infested crumbling house, and fight. Little Edie is always complaining about the sorry mess her life has become. She wants nothing more (she says) than to get away from Grey Gardens and have her own life in New York City. There are some epic battles, most of which have clearly been fought and fought and fought again any number of times over the years. The Maysles film is not to everybody's taste. I've referred to it as being NO EXIT by Tennessee Williams, a thrilling and ambiguous and disturbing experience, and I've known people who think the film exploits mental illness, and others just can't stand all the bitching.
There seems to be a real little Beale industry popping up. Most of the reviews mention the Maysles film as being a gay cult classic, and the popular gay newsmagazine The Advocate published an article claiming the film as a rite of passage for young gay men. I'm not sure who these people are, I have to say. Few of the NYC gay men I know had ever heard of the film before the musical opened, and those who had heard of it didn't like it very much (exploitation, bitching). I don't remember the film being widely available on video (for a long time I owned the only VHS of the film that I'd ever seen, purchased from a video store that was purging unrented stock from their shelves) until the Criterion Collection DVD of the film was released. I'd guess this cult is only about ten years old.
There have been two major works based on the Maysles film. A Broadway musical in 2006 and an HBO film each added dramatizations of past events occasionally referred to in the Maysles film in an effort (not to say struggle) to answer the question that the Maysles film never brings up directly: what the hell is up with these two women? The musical was hampered by a lame score and even lamer book which made an ultimately ill-advised chronological decision. Act One was set in the late 1930s and centered on Big Edie Beale at the height of her popularity as a Hamptons hostess as her life starts to collapse around her, and Act Two centered on Little Edie Beale and her life in the crumbling mansion. Act One Big Edie and Act Two Little Edie were played by the same actress, and people just went nuts for the stunt, but it always felt to me that this approach cost more than it was worth. In dividing the performances this way I never felt that I learned enough about the women in the context of the play itself, which all too often resorted to easy musicalizations of major moments in the film (The Beales' Greatest Hits) and some really blatant bids for Sympathy for the Beales. The ugly deep sargasso swamp of these women's relationship was skimmed rather than seriously explored.
The HBO film, on the other hand, seems to get it all right. The Beales are played by two instead of four actresses, and manages to add biographical information about the Beales that actually create genuine sympathy for the ladies. The HBO film takes a more straightforward approach than the musical, simply cutting back and forth between 1970s Grey Gardens, where the Maysles Brothers are making their film with the Beales, and the Beales' lives in the 1930s 40s and 50s. Equal time is given to mother and daughter, and the train wrecks of their lives are clearly laid out, along with some real insight into their motives.
Jessica Lange is nothing short of brilliant as Big Edie Beale. She's able to evoke some real pity for the woman while never backing away from showing the total mama-monster. A fascinating and complicated performance. I wish I could say the same of Drew Barrymore as Little Edie. At 34, Barrymore is able to play the younger Edie with some skill and energy, but she's simply in over her head when it comes to playing Edie at 56. She does her best, and manages a couple of skillful impersonation moments when re-creating famous bits from the Maysles film, but ultimately it just isn't enough, layers of prosthetic makeup notwithstanding. She's just too young, plain and simple. Also, more damagingly, she simply isn't able to summon the breeding that Lange manages so effortlessly: simply put, she has no class at all, faded or otherwise. When the Maysles' Little Edie uses words like "apoplectic" she knows what she means, and she refers to someone as being "an artist from a very good family" without irony. Barrymore just can't simulate this kind of thing: she doesn't understand Little Edie the way Lange understands Big Edie.
The biggest problem I had with the HBO film is that it falls into one of the same traps that hampered the musical, the Re-creation Temptation. It gets to the point where the Maysleses and the Beales really deserve some kind of co-writing credit. Unfortunately, I just can't help thinking that the Beales and Maysleses are better writers. Too many moments from the Maysles film are shoe-horned in to the proceedings to satisfy the fans, whether in context or not. For example, one of the more telling moments in the Maysles film comes when Little Edie says that "(i)t's very difficult to keep the line between the present and past." Maysles' Little Edie drops this little bombshell, which is basically the entire film in a single sentence, in an otherwise innocuous exchange with their handyman about the assorted changes the estate has gone through over the years, while HBO's Little Edie delivers this line with High Seriousness straight into the camera after an argument with her mother so we can be sure that even the slowest viewer will GET IT.
Worth watching? Yeah, why not, you'll get to see Jessica Lange do some of her very best work. But nothing can substitute for the original Maysles Brothers film. Nothing can come near it.