Grey Gardens: The Mother of All Reality TV

If a bizarrely dysfunctional family chooses to bare itself on camera—perhaps without grasping how bizarre they are—who's the most screwed-up party? The narcissistic family? The exploitative film crew? Or the voyeuristic audience? These questions may seem ridiculously irrelevant after all these years of "The Osbournes," "Growing Up Gotti" and the like, but it's impossible not to ponder them while watching HBO's docudrama "Grey Gardens." The film recounts the sad, interwoven declines of socialite Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her aspiring actress-singer-dancer daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale—a.k.a. "Big Edie" and "Little Edie." Their story became a tabloid fixture in 1971 after town officials in East Hampton, N.Y., tried to evict them from their ramshackle mansion, Grey Gardens. Why did anyone outside the Hamptons care? Because the impoverished Beales, 76 and 54 at the time, happened to be the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The mother-and-daughter blue bloods had been abandoned by their family (for reasons that were never entirely clear) and lived in isolation and incredible squalor that would have horrified Miss Havisham: broken plumbing, garbage piled everywhere, the rooms overrun by cats and raccoons, and the floors caked with—well, you don't want to know. (Article continued below...)

Still, it wasn't until filmmakers Albert and David Maysles made the Beales the stars of a free-form vérité documentary also called "Grey Gardens" that the world got an intimate look at the women's tangled, profoundly codependent relationship. It takes some imagination to grasp it now, but in the '70s the idea of essentially setting up surveillance on a couple of troubled real-life celebrities and compiling the highlights was shocking. (PBS's "An American Family" started down this road in 1973, but "Grey Gardens" felt even more invasive—and remains more influential.) Armed with lightweight movie cameras quiet enough to allow extended, unobtrusive filming—still a comparatively new technology at the time—the Maysleses capture the Beales doing seemingly mundane things, such as sunbathing, making lunch from cans of paté and reminiscing dreamily about the past, all while their house closes in on them. They both seem oblivious to their surroundings at times—drifting off into songs, talking over one another as if the other isn't there. Little Edie comes off the more troubled of the two. She's intelligent, but trapped inside alarmingly childlike behaviors, such as hoarding even the most faded childhood keepsakes. Between the daily drudgery, the women snipe at each other in a way that seems near Proustian in its labyrinthine complexity. Little Edie accuses her mother of chasing away suitors who might threaten the matriarch's claim on her attentions, to which her mother at first replies, "She just didn't want to get married, and it's all blamed on me," only to say later, "I didn't want my child to be taken away. I'd be entirely alone." For her part, Little Edie declares she's desperate to get away— yet she never does. "Of course I won't get outta here till she dies," says Little Edie, "or I die." All these exchanges are carefully framed by the Maysleses for maximum impact and metaphorical heft. There'd never been a slice of celebrity tawdriness quite like it.

You won't find anything nearly so artful on "The Surreal Life" or any of the other shows that traffic in washed-up stars, and you won't in HBO's movie, either. Jessica Lange makes a credible Big Edie, but Drew Barrymore never quite nails Little Edie's accent or tremulous, willowy, funny-disturbing physicality. There's also a scene of reconciliation between mother and daughter that feels phony in director/co-writer Michael Sucsy's hands, capped by Barrymore's Little Edie throwing flowers in slow motion to fans at the film's premiere, unabashedly happy and seemingly functional—an absurdly unironic, sentimental vision. The Maysleses come off in a near-hagiographic light as great friends to the Beales, as if they'd simply championed two strong women. (Surviving brother Albert was a consultant on the HBO film.) In the end, Lange and Barrymore simply can't compete with the real things. Case in point: Little Edie's triumphant, flag-waving dance, in fishnet stockings, white high heels and red-kerchief headgear, to the accompaniment of music by the Virginia Military Institute band on a scratchy old record. The Barrymore version is an amusing snapshot of an eccentric. The original Edie performance is infinitely needy, spirited and sad. It was one reason why critics at the time called "Grey Gardens" "cruel" and a "circus sideshow." How quaint.

But then again, "Grey Gardens" was one of the first films to recognize the appeal of dysfunction as entertainment. Before the Maysleses met the Beales, you had to turn to dramatists such as Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams and a long line of tragedians before them to plumb the lives of lost people in a profound way. "Grey Gardens" heralded in a new paradigm that made mere drama feel musty. How could it deliver the guilty, electric thrill of watching an actual family go to pieces before your eyes? It's the Edies who best embody that shift—and who may well outlast attention magnets like Jade Goody as figures of fascination. By living somewhere well outside reality, the Beales helped define what we now call "reality stars." True story.