Sunday, April 19, 2009

100% "Grey" Coverage in HBO Film

I hope you caught HBO's Grey Gardens movie last night; Jane previewed it here last week so we all had a head's up. Starring two splendid actresses -- Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore -- and perennial solid male lead Ken Howard, plus Jeanne Trippelhorne as Jackie O, HBO's Grey Gardens told the story behind the famous filmmaking Maysles Brothers' documentary of the same name from 1975. Awash in eccentricities, the kind that seemingly can only be indulged in safely by the upper class, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie found themselves bound together by necessity, familiarity, convenience, maternal psychology, and love, of course, ending up living in an ramshackle but once elegant Hamptons manse surrounded by oodles of cats and even more memories. (Above left, Drew Barrymore as Edie Beale.)

The Beale's predicament engenders speculation, awe, freakish ogling and hopefully much empathy. In order to fully appreciate HBO's achievement in bringing their story to life as a fairly typical -- not to say run-of-the-mill, though -- TV Movie, the Maysles' doc must be part of your viewing. What the Maysles' captured on film is the real deal; HBO's movie is part almost exact re-creation of scenes from the documentary, plus backstory from the ladies' heyday and other additional material. (Right, the real Edie Beale.)

I always pull back a little from full-on bravos when actors are portraying real people who have been so thoroughly examined onscreen already, and when the new versions are based, visually and every other way, on what's already there. Is "acting" the same as "acting like"? There was a huge amount of pure impersonation in HBO's Grey Gardens, and of course that's an achievement in itself, but not the same as creating a role from whole cloth. Great aging makeup, we admit, and wow, the costumes look just like in the documentary. (The Broadway musical of the same name about the Beales had the identical set of advantages.)

HBO Canada is playing the Maysles' Grey Gardens doc in tandem with the new movie, and last night I watched them back-to-back. Of course in the HBO film we get the chance to see Lange as Edie I and Barrymore as Edie II go back in time and portray the exuberant Beales in all their early eccentric glory and that's a treat, but I'm not sure seeing them as the older mom and daughter duo is quite as authentic a thrill as watching the real pair in the documentary.

I'm not sure exactly what we artistically gain by the movie treatment of Grey Gardens, other than the chance for two actresses to go toe-to-toe playing out obtuse family dynamics and getting to stretch their acting muscles while aging onscreen. Not that HBO's Grey Gardens wasn't excellent, but I think perhaps the original truth was stranger and more dear than the Hollywoodized truth as essayed by Lange and Barrymore.

But these are minor carps. You won't be seeing something like this as a big screen movie, so relish that Barrymore and Lange wanted to bring this to television.

Grey Gardens reprises many times on HBO and HBO Canada this month.

1 comment:

Jane said...

I have not seen the documentary Grey Gardens, but I did read the original 1971 New York magazine article, which was fascinating. I couldn't help thinking as I watched the HBO special last night, that the documentary would probably be more compelling. However, I was transfixed by Drew Barrymore's performance. I would not have expected such nuance from her. She is truly "born to the breed". Even her starchy upper crust New England accent seemed authentic. I'll give the whole production a "B". As compared to John Adams which was A+++. And there were not nearly enough cats. The article in the New York mag said at one point they had over 50. That, combined with their trash filled house made them both "collectors" a true psychological disease that can sometimes be controlled with anti-depressants. It's related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

By the way, in real life, Jackie O was not that kind to them.