They were so eccentric they have been referenced across pop culture television and music. From Gilmore Girls, The L Word, Rugrats, Will & Grace, and Tales of the City to music from Rufus Wainwright to magazine shoots in Harper’s Bazaar. They have even spawned a stage play and a musical.
They were “Big Edie” and “Little Edie”, two New York socialites who were aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The mother and daughter lived in squalor in their ‘Grey Gardens‘ mansion in The Hamptons, in upstate New York. Across the years their life had turned from society parties to desolation in their decaying manor, infested with cats, garbage, raccoons and filth.
A documentary, also dubbed Grey Gardens, captured the two women on film in 1975, with its remarkable access. As audiences watched the two women’s lives cinema verite style, it became clear their eccentric spirits and devotion to one another rose above the ugly veneer. Now the story of the women, including their documentary, is the subject of an HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
Lange plays the elder Edie, whose young marriage gave her the freedom to host parties where she would sing and dance for her society guests. Barrymore plays the younger Edie, who, in her youth left her mother for New York City in the hope of a career as an actress. It never came. When both were cut off from the finances from father and husband Phelan Beale, they lived out the rest of their years at Grey Gardens. Living in virtual isolation, they clung to one another in a relationship fuelled by need, bitterness, music, fear and laughter.
With such rich material to work with, these two actresses deliver mesmerising performances. The two Edies were so eccentric it would be hard to conjure them from a writer’s imagination. Like the sisters of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the mother and daughter were inseparable in later years, dependent on one another from the cruelty of the world.
With a story spanning some 40+ years, both Lange and Barrymore age dramatically here. The film opens in the ’70s when they were approached by two documentary filmmakers, before flashing back to the salad days of the 1930s with debutante balls, society parties and a house with servants. For most of the film the story revolves almost entirely around Lange and Barrymore.
While Lange spends much of the film bed-ridden as Big Edie, Barrymore transforms from an attractive young girl to an eccentric in scarves and fur coats, longing for the stardom that never arrived. The two are perfect in the roles, giving meaning behind their theatricality.
Following a National Enquirer story, local authorities threatened Grey Gardens with demolition. But Jackie Onassis, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love), financed a renovation and cleaning of the mansion, allowing the two to stay.
As a forgotten slice of America’s ‘Camelot’ era, the truth behind Grey Gardens is a fascinating curiosity. If the real documentary was too ugly to endure, here there is more understanding of how such a modern tragedy came to pass, and at the same time, serving as a celebration of spirit.
This HBO film is up for 17 Emmy Awards and it certainly deserves to take home a few, especially for Barrymore.
Grey Gardens airs 8:30pm Saturday on Showcase.