TCA Tour, Jan. 2009: “Grey Gardens”

Tell a film buff that HBO is getting ready to air a new movie called “Grey Gardens,” and watch their smug expression as they try to one-up you and say, “That’s not new! That came out back in 1975!” Well, they’re half-right, anyway. There was a movie that came out in ’75 called “Grey Gardens.” That, however, was a documentary about Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. This “Grey Gardens” tackles much of the same material but offers up a fuller picture of their lives, and this time the parts of Little Edie and Big Edie are being played by Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

It’s funny how differently the two actresses reacted to the challenge of playing their characters. Lange was rather casual with her description of the experience; although she referred to it as “the most difficult role I’ve had in a long time,” she also said that it was good for her, describing it as “a fascinating exercise.” When listening to Barrymore talk about it, however, her desire to come through with nothing short of the performance of a lifetime was palpable.

“I was scared all the time,” Barrymore admitted. “I felt sick to my stomach all the time. I thought I was going to die. I really did, because I felt such a responsibility to the people that loved the documentary and hold (Little Edie) in such an intense regard, such a loyalty. She always said, ‘I wouldn’t want somebody playing me in a movie except for Leslie Caron,’ because she thought ‘Gigi’ was marvelous. In ‘The Beales of Grey Gardens,’ which is all the footage that didn’t make it into ‘Grey Gardens,’ they say, ‘Who would play your mother?’ And she goes, ‘Ethel Barrymore?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, good. On one hand, I’m hearing Edie say she doesn’t want anyone to play her, and on the other hand, I’m hearing my family’s name. This has gotta be meant to be.’ So I just felt an intense responsibility to imitate her perfectly.”

For those wondering how much crossover exists between this “Grey Gardens” and the other “Grey Gardens,” director and co-writer Michael Sucsy estimates that about two-thirds of the film is original material, much of which came courtesy of the Beale family themselves.

“Big Edie had three grandsons and one granddaughter who are still alive, and the grandsons had all of Edie’s papers,” said Sucsy. “They had her diaries, her journals, her letters, her poetry, and culling through all of that. Although it was like hitting the jackpot in terms of research, it wasn’t organized; there were huge gaps of things that were missing. But everything in the story comes from something. Nothing was made up out of whole cloth, so it wasn’t just a service of what makes it a better movie. We really, really tried to make everything as historically as we thought it was.”

Even if you don’t agree that Barrymore succeeded in her quest to provide a pitch-perfect reproduction of Little Edie, after you see “Grey Gardens,” you’ll have no question as to how much effort she put into the project.

“Grey Gardens” premieres on HBO in April 2009.


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