So, the Grey Gardens movie premieres on HBO tonight, with Jessica Lange as "Big Edie" Beale and Drew Barrymore as her daughter, "Little Edie."
I won't be watching, since I dropped HBO a few months ago. All of their original programming is available on dvd soon enough and I can just get it from Netflix. Also, I'm not totally on the Big Edie, Little Edie bandwagon.
When I saw the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens about the Beales - aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - my initial reaction was, these women are mentally ill. They're living in squalor in a decaying Long Island mansion and clearly have trouble coping with everyday life. I felt that filmmakers Albert and David Maysles exploited them a bit.
I guess I'm not the first person to raise the issue because it's addressed on the commentary track. The producer and director argue that Big and Little Edie were nonconformists, that their lives were examples of how opportunities for women of their era were constricted. If they were British we'd be calling them eccentric and their behavior would be considered charming.
Later, I saw Christine Ebersole on The View. She played the older Edie in the first act and the younger Edie in the second act of the Broadway musical Grey Gardens, and won a Tony award. One of the hosts brought up the same question: Wasn't there something emotionally wrong with these women? Ebersole gave pretty much the same answer, that they were artistic types, nonconformists, etc.
But leaving food out for the raccoons in your attic is not normal behavior. Neither is leaving bags of garbage - and worse - around your house. I felt these women were being romanticized and their plight explained as "nonconformity" when it was really closer to mental illness.
I've softened a little bit. There's an audio interview with Little Edie that was recorded a few years after the documentary came out. On it, she talks about how much she and her mother liked their portrayal. And she actually sounded more lucid than she did in the film.
Also, I subsequently saw Grey Gardens on Broadway and Ebersole was great. She absolutely channels Little Edie in the second act. And she creates a memorable Big Edie in the first act, really out of whole cloth, with no documentary to guide her. I think Little Edie would have been thrilled and flattered by her performance.
Still, I couldn't get away from the fact that I'd seen the documentary. The way those two women lived was not okay. No one would want to live in those conditions. Check out this 2002 New York Times obituary for Little Edie for the details.
I'm definitely curious about the movie. But I just have a tough time seeing the Beales as icons, as cult figures to be lionized. To me, they were two lonely, troubled women who needed help. And there's nothing charming about their circumstances.