Sunday, April 26, 2009

"I have to think these things up. You know..."

Maybe I'm too staunch a character to allow such alive and lovably eccentric ladies to be placed into the biopic mold. "There's nothing worse, I'm telling you."

The new Grey Gardens -- which aims to bring backstory to the high-society squalor of Big and Little Edie Beale -- feels partially inspired and partially stale. Not much different really from a piece of dry bread left to the raccoons in the Beales' attic. The attempts to fill in the gaps of Albert and David Maysles' seminal documentary are where the film finds its emotions forced and grey clouds hovering over such beautiful blossoms.

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange both fare best in the documentary-era scenes, which seem to blend the devotion and disarray of these women most clearly. Barrymore gives one of the most complete performances of her career, and only feels like Drew Barrymore as old-age Drew Barrymore in a fraction of the scenes. She doesn't master Edie's mannerisms and dialect, but she comes impressively close enough and it's fun to watch her find the spirit of this toe-tappin' recluse. Jessica Lange too finds Big Edith best when she's confined to "present day," but one could argue she was aiming to do less imitation and more method acting. Do you think she really sat around singing in cat piss and ice cream cartons to prepare for this? Anything less would be below my own staunch standards. S-T-A-U-N-C-H.

The Beales' shared dreams and tattered remains do eventually translate, but only after too many orchestrating scenes of Edie trying to escape and those ever-painful "biopic moments" that seek to define a history rather than deliver it. It's no different than a film like Van Sant's recent Milk, which turns a radically emotional and personal documentary into a more calculating take on its characters - to the benefit of some perspective and to the loss of so much personality. Both are fine films by any standard, but too bound by structure to pull at my heart-strings. My issues with this revamp/retrospective seem to rest primarily (and maybe unfairly) with the problematic nature of its form, and less to do with its pleasurable performances, rich art direction, and any "in-joke" echoes of these infinitely fascinating women. It's definitely not a revolutionary costume, but it'll do.


Pax Romano said...

I found Drew pretty decent in the film, and I while watching I was marveling over her "acting". That is, I knew it was Drew, but she seemed to be doing a pretty decent imitation of Little Edie. She was really on during the dance numbers, and when she asked Jackie if JFK had given her a venereal disease (I also LOVED her talking about the French New Wave, and how she'd missed it).

Jessica, on the other hand, pretty much disappeared inside of all that makeup and "became" Big Edie. I mean she nailed it! I really hope she gets an Emmy for her efforts.

I really did not like the jewelry scene at the end and how they sort of "make up", it seemed disingenuous. But I loved when Big Edie told her daughter, "You're an acquired taste, babe". That's going to be my new fave line.

Finally, if nothing else, this film is really going to bring a lot of folks to The Maysles Brothers orignal, and that's a good thing.

OK, that's all for now, I have to go find my costume for the evening.

Adam said...

I hope this post isn't too negative, since this new film doesn't deserve a bashing. My love for the two docs run far too deep. I was just pulverized by this latest thing.


The HBO film, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lang is certainly a perfect tribute to both the original documentary and these two wonderful woman.
I was told right after filming of the HBO film wrapped up in the fall of 2007, that I would be blown away at the last scene, where Edie sings Tea For Two at Reno Sweeny, and I was ! I had supplied the film company with the only recording in existence of Edie singing the tune, only this wasn't from her actual performance at the club, but rather her singing it just for me at one of my many visits to Grey Gardens, more than 30 years ago. Drew sang it exactly, phrase for phrase as I have it on tape. Edie and I actually met that night at Reno Sweeny, and my relationship with Grey Gardens has now spanned over 3 decades. For our complete review, check out our blog at (HBO film review by Robb Brawn & Lee Arboreen), and be sure to check our Youtube video uploaded 4/18/09 the same day as the HBO film release. Click
GREY GARDENS PROMO to view the video