I know that last week was unofficial Grey Gardens week on the Internet, and five days after the HBO movie premiered, I've yet to post anything about it. Do I just move on like time, or am I so passe as to write about something that should already be in the yellow room, eating cat-food pâté, according to Internet time? Like Little Edie says, it's awful both ways.
But look, the movie is such a gem that I've grown increasingly anxious as each day goes by without getting this out. So, let me quickly say: wow. At its heart, Grey Gardens (2009) is a movie about a movie. I believe that this is the primary reason why it shares its name with the 1975 documentary (it's eponymous like Gandhi). It begins with the Edies Beale watching the Maysles' work, and continues returning to the filming of the doc throughout its duration. This makes sense, too, as the documentary was the climax of these natural entertainers' lives. Of course, the draw of this cinematic biopic is its display of how former society dames came to live in squalor. They had their cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and then became extremely sick from food poisoning.The film devotes itself to the cause of how and, as such, is a building of the ruins.
It seems to intuitively know what the fans care about and hone in on that. We meet Gould. We understand the melancholy in Big Edie's voice when she talks about her "terribly successful" marriage. We see that Little Edie isn't quite the dreamer that her mother makes her out to be: that the "chance" she missed out on to become a professional entertainer really did seem attainable at one point, and that the "married man" really was quite fond of her (he outfitted her with the coat she's wearing in the film's poster).
As much as it all satiated my natural curiosity, though, it sort of had the opposite effect on my primal amusement at the documentary: so much of the 1975 film's appeal is wrapped up in the WTFness of these women's language. It is at times impossible to tell what they're talking about (and that's why the original documentary comes off as boring at first, because it's much easier to tune out this buzzing nonsense than to parse out the absurdity of it all). Watching the Maysels' 1975 Grey Gardens with no outside knowledge of these women's lives makes them seem a lot crazier. While Little Edie's speech pattern was naturally expository (a device brilliantly employed in both the documentary and the 2009 film), she clearly wasn't capable of conveying the extraordinary circumstances that led to their destitute. Watching the fuller story, I couldn't help but wonder if the slice of life the Maysles offered was, in fact, half-baked.
But you know, it does little to diminish my love of the original film, I just now see it for what it is: a piece of the pie that is the Beales' legacy. What's so wonderful about this new movie is that it fits so well onto that plate. I would have thought it impossible to create something worthy of these phenomenal women, and yet first-time (!) director Michael Sucsy did just that. From the structure (rigid, to compensate for the house's) to the appearance (so gorgeous it's a pity that most of us never got the chance to see it on the big screen) to the pacing (as deliberate as decay, just like the original) to the performances of Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, which have received heaps of praise and deserve mountains more. These women have the Beales down to the gesture, like when Big Edie touches her face twice before rhapsodizing singing while sitting in bed, or when Little Edie glances up ever so slightly after informing the Maysles that she and "Mother" had "quite a fight" over a kimono earlier that morning. The attention to detail is ecstatic. I've seen people recommend watching the original doc before seeing this; I recommend loving it before seeing this. It's your only shot at truly appreciating its greatness.
I love that it keeps you on your toes, like when Big Edie comments to Gould that the sky is the color of saaphire (she says that, in fact, to Edie in the first film), or when Edie does her spiel about being afraid of locks on the beach (she says it on the porch in the movie). But even more than the little winks this movie gives fans, I love that Little Edie gets a happy ending...and then a happier one. To know little Edie is to know why this is crucial. If you don't get that, well, you wouldn't understand: it's a Grey Gardens thing.