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Review: Grey Gardens (2009)

Grey Gardens (2009)

Directed by: Michael Sucsy

Premise: Based on true events. In 1973, documentary filmmakers catalog the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith (Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore) who live in an isolated and dilapidated estate in East Hampton, New York.

What Works: In the early 1970s, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles created a documentary about the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith. The mother and daughter lived in an isolated and dilapidated estate in East Hampton, New York known as Grey Gardens. The Beales were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and they had come from money but their funds dried up long ago and the mother and daughter lived in squalor and never left the property. The 2009 film Grey Gardens is a dramatization about the Beales, alternating between their descent into isolation and the filming of the 1975 documentary. The dramatization has a great look. The past portions of the story primarily take place in New York among members of high society and the film captures the flavor of that time and especially the lives and sensibilities of people whose wealth has isolated them from the realities of everyday life. By cutting back and forth between the past and present we can see their later isolation as a natural extension of their earlier lives. The juxtaposition is also ironic; these women are dirt poor and yet they carry on as though they are still living the high life. With the Beale’s connection to the Kennedys it is not too much to read this as a neat metaphor of American wealth, literalizing the truism (attributed to John Steinbeck) that America’s poor see themselves not as an exploited underclass but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. The look of the movie and the organization of the narrative are complemented by the terrific central performances by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the Beales. The mother and daughter have a complicated and deeply codependent relationship and Lange and Barrymore draw out the subtext of their scenes especially in moments in which the daughter wants to break free but is quietly restrained by cutting words from her mother. There is love between them but also dysfunction and the movie gets at the complexity of family relationships.

What Doesn’t: Grey Gardens is probably best appreciated in conjunction with the 1975 documentary of the same name. 2009’s Grey Gardens stands on its own but the viewing experience may be more meaningful if the audience has pre-knowledge of the 1975 documentary especially since the dramatic film recreates some of its important moments. 2009’s Grey Gardens is a good example of what drama can do that documentary can’t and vice versa. Drama allows for the kind of intimacy and narrative shape that documentary isn’t as well suited for while the documentary possesses an authenticity that drama, as an inherently artificial form, can never really achieve. 

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, and interviews.

Bottom Line: 2009’s Grey Gardens is a fascinating story about a pair of eccentric people. While it might be best viewed as a double feature with the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens is an outstanding drama with a couple of great performances.

Episode: #800 (May 10, 2020)