The release date for the DVD of HBO's Grey Gardens was just announced: July 14, 2009.
As announced before, it will include an audio commentary by director Michael Sucsy.
The release date for the DVD of HBO's Grey Gardens was just announced: July 14, 2009.
As announced before, it will include an audio commentary by director Michael Sucsy.
This brief interview also includes some images of Kalina's Grey Gardens set that we haven't seen yet!
From Bloomacious, on April 16, 2009
Weekend Movie: Grey Gardens
Few HBO films have been so hotly anticipated as this weekend's premiere of Grey Gardens starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore (Saturday at 8:00). Fan-sites have been set up, and images of the set and wardrobe have been traded around on the net like baseball cards on opening day (BTW - isn't Yankee Stadium opening today?)
I've always been enthralled with the process of designing and decorating sets - the methods employed by production designers to choose items like wallpaper, paintings and bedspreads, that give audiences reference points about characters. More intriguing still are the smaller items that help flesh out the dark corners of a fictional psyche. The choice of fragrance and cosmetics set out on a vanity top, or a brand of cookies laid casually on a kitchen counter top are all elements that bring us to into a film.
I talked with Grey Gardens Production Designer Kalina Ivanov (pictured first in the slide-show) earlier in the week about her process on the film. Kalina has worked on a wide range of films in her career including Little Miss Sunshine, Uptown Girls, Brown Sugar, SwimFan,The Brave One, and Made of Honor.
Below the slide-show, which features room story-lines and drawings of the set which was built in Canada for the filming of this production, is a synopsis of the conversation.
Q: How did you start getting interested in production design?
A: I fell in love with set design after watching a Moskow production of Hamlet, it was very avant garde and the stage was divided by one curtain that changed shape to define different spaces. I was 16 years old.
Q: You've worked on a pretty eclectic collection of films, how do you get into the mindset of the characters?
A: My work is eclectic on purpose. I like to experiment with different genres, and avoid being ‘pigeon-holed’. I love to imagine the characters, their history, income, behavior. In my design I always try to capture the heart and soul of the writing. I also strive for authenticity in the environment and a palette that mirrors the characters’ inner life.
Q: In Grey Gardens we see a progression from glory days to decline, and much of this experience is portrayed through the set design of the house, how did you approach this concept for this film without making it too obvious.
A: Grey Gardens was very challenging. We had to build the façade of the house in a field near the Toronto Zoo and all the interiors on a stage. Each room and the façade had to be aged gradually to show the time passage. We did four different stages of aging. My crew and I had a very complex schedule of how to accomplish that. My favorite story is when we had to drop the construction lift on the roof in order to break it.
Q: You mentioned that you had a hard time finding images of the house when the Edie's moved in originally - how did you recreate the look?
A: The director, Michael Suscy, and I looked at period rooms of the time. We wanted to give the Edies a more European style Art Deco which is more fluid and feminine. We also wanted to create a very bohemian feeling to the rooms. This was a summer cottage, a party house. It was very important to me the house doesn’t look like a museum, and feels real and ‘lived in’. Michael and I settled on the purple for the living room to suggest a royal feel to Big Edie’s character. Coincidentally, I had shown Michael an image of a purple art deco room on my interview. We also used many Chinese themed wallpaper and furniture. It was very much the vogue in the 1930’s. We found many authentic wallpaper samples from the period, as well as antiques pieces of furniture.
Q: Were there particular items of pieces of furniture that you placed on set that were intentional personality cues - ie: how did you specifically express the quirkiness of these character through furnishing choices?
A: Good question. One of the small funny touches Michael and I did was to put a plant inside a bird cage in the 1930’s living room. It was meant to show the whimsy and free spirit of Big Edie, hardly the perfect society matron.
Q: In real life, when you see homes and office settings, do you see personality cues that spring from design choices that others of us without an artist's eye see? For example, if someone loves mid century modern furniture, does that suggest anything to you?
A: I think our spaces give many clues about our personalities. I’m always hunting for clues in people’s homes. I have a huge bank of images in my head from visiting friends and strangers and I often try to use them in my films. I’m always on the look out for the poetic.
Cleary this is a joke, but it's fun to think about!
From DataLounge, on April 20, 2009
Grey Gardens: The Animated Series
ATLANTA (AP) — First the documentary, then the Broadway musical, then the HBO film... now are you ready for "Grey Gardens: The Animated Series"?
Cartoon Network announced today the development of a new television series, "Grey Gardens: The Animated Series," to premiere on the popular cable channel this October. Based on the lives of the famed Beale women "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," relatives of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the series will capitalize on America's continued fascination with the shattered lives of the once wealthy and privileged mother-daughter pair in their dilapidated east Hampton, NY mansion. Ever since the Beales' story of living in isolated squalor in their Long Island mansion was first exploited by newspapers in 1971, the women have been the subjects of a famous 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers, a 2006 Broadway musical, and a recent 2009 HBO made-for-cable movie with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore... all of which have been entitled "Grey Gardens."
This new animated version, Cartoon Network spokesman James Anderson assured reporters, "will be very much in keeping with the previous versions," in a press conference this morning. "We want to emphasize the mother-daughter relationship as much as possible," Anderson suggested, "and answer the questions millions of Americans still have about how a family with so much money and prestige could have ended up like this."
Anderson also added that there will be new twists to this version of the famous story. Every week "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" will pool their resources to solve crimes that occur in the nearby estates of their Hamptons neighbors, and will receive aid from their closest friends, the enormous assortment of cats and raccoons sharing lodging in the crumbling manor house. A new character, "Scrabbles," the head raccoon who will warn Big Edie of a breaking crime event, will feature heavily into each episode.
Anderson noted the Cartoon network has already secured the services of noted "Laugh-In" actress JoAnn Worley to provide the voice of Big Edie and Academy Award-nominated actress Winona Ryder to provide the voice of her daughter Little Edie. Rounding out the cast will be the voices of Matthew Broderick as Albert Maysles, Joan van Ark as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Kenan Thompson as Scrabbles the Raccoon.
I find Peter Som's comment to be very interesting! I'd never equated the Edie with Madonna, other than in this video.
From New York Times, by Eric Wilson, on April 15, 2009
Exploring the Style Behind ‘Grey Gardens’
Countless fashion designers, as diverse as John Galliano and John Bartlett, have tried to get inside the head of Little Edie Beale of “Grey Gardens” fame. It is a special muse who can wear a blouse as a head wrap and pronounce, in all seriousness, that the best thing is to wear pantyhose under a short skirt because you can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape.
The Beales of East Hampton, as exposed in the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, lived in squalor but nevertheless managed to look smashing in fur coats and inexplicable combinations of Marimekko and Pulitzer prints. Their loony look of decayed decadence is so seared into the designer consciousness that it has practically become camp to cite “Grey Gardens” as an inspiration.
But the new film dramatization of “Grey Gardens,” which HBO will begin to show on Saturday, attempts to explain how that style of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie, came to be, without so blithely celebrating it, as has happened in fashion. The costumes, by Catherine Marie Thomas, are employed as a vehicle for depicting the decline of the Beales, who are aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, from socially prominent figures of the 1930s to the eccentric characters made famous four decades later.
“What’s interesting about the film is that is shows their transformation,” said Peter Som, one of a handful of designers who attended a screening on Tuesday.
“Their style was born out of necessity,” Mr. Som said. “It recalls early Madonna, when she had no money and lived in the East Village and just pulled things together. What came out of it was a completely original look. Little Edie was the first one that we know about who became a fashion original that way.”
Oh, Scarlett O’Hara, how quickly we forget.
Little Edie, the HBO film makes clear, suffered from alopecia, a condition that caused her hair loss, and as the Beales fell into financial ruin, she invented head wraps using blouses, brooches and safety pins. Ms. Thomas, in an interview, said that this likely had a deep impact on Little Edie’s psyche, which could partly explain her transformation from the once singular beauty seen in photographs from the 1930s. In one scene the young Little Edie (played by Drew Barrymore) is shown dancing in a dazzling white hooded silk-charmeuse dress. The old Little Edie wears turtlenecks and trench coats and fashions a skirt from a crochet throw.
“Her style was an evolution of a lot of different things over many years,” Ms. Thomas said. “She wasn’t always a totally wacky dresser, although she had her own sensibility about dressing.”
From Videogum, by Linday, on April 21, 2009
Jeff Goldblum Thinks He Looks Like A Crazy Old Lady
He also admitted that he cares a lot about how he looks, which was a set up for a story about his realization this past weekend that he shares an alarming accessory with Jessica Lange's version of Big Edie from Grey Gardens (and both guys admit to loving the movie, so watch it!) That video, and the rope tricks, after the jump.
I can't wait until this is made into a "drunk Jeff Goldblum" video on YouTube:
I'm going through news about HBO's film that I may have missed, and I just found this article in an email from Alex. Kudos to Drew and Jessica, and to Michael Sucsy!
From E! Online, by Marc Malkin, on April 17, 2009
Drew Barrymore Gets Grey Gardens Family Approval
Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange are getting high praise for their performances in HBO's Grey Gardens from the people who know the story like no other: Big Edie Beale's grandchildren.
"I thought it was spectacular," Michelle Beale, whose father (Phelan Jr.) was Big Edie's older son, told me last night at the L.A. premiere at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Michelle's cousin Christopher Beale (dad was Buddy Beale) added, "Very, very well done."
Read on for more on what they have to say about Barrymore and Lange, why not everyone in the family is a fan of Albert and David Maysles' original documentary and why their dads wished cousin Jackie O. had not cleaned up the now-legendary estate.
What did you think when [director and writer] Mike Sucsy first came to you and told you he wanted to make the movie?
Michelle: I was very reluctant to talk to him. I thought the first movie, the documentary, was very exploitive. My father felt that way as well. He felt that they were manipulated. They never got anything from it. I did not contribute as much as my cousin, Chris. Well, now I think they did an excellent job, and I just told him that. I think the two actresses were spectacular.
How close did Drew and Jessica get to the real Edies?
Michelle: In Jessica Lange, I can hear my grandmother. And Drew Barrymore really got Edie's accent down, and she also got some of her mannerisms.
Christopher: She got all of her mannerisms.
How much do you remember of the Grey Gardens home?
Michelle: I lived there when I was very little. In the late 1940s, I lived there for a couple of years after the war. We ultimately moved to Oklahoma, but during the '50s we would go back. Daddy was very close to his mother. But you could see things starting to deteriorate. They didn't have the money to keep it up. My grandmother would not leave.
In the movie, your fathers are shown trying to convince them to sell the house and move to Florida.
Christopher: They were a whole lot pushier than that. They were thrilled when the health department came and they were going to shut the house down and throw them on the street. My father was thrilled. But then Jackie [Onassis] popped up and shaped the place up. My father was furious. He didn't want her saving them. He wanted them out on the street, so he could pick them up in a station wagon and drive them to Florida.
Did your grandmother and aunt realize what was happening?
Michelle: I think my grandmother realized it, but over time she became oblivious to it. It was like tunnel vision. They were savvy, but in their world they stopped seeing things. They stopped seeing that the raccoons were there.
Christopher: They stopped seeing and they stopped smelling.
Did you visit them even after the house got that bad?
Christopher: Many times, we would haul them out for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter and take them out to a restaurant in East Hampton. But when you got to the house, by the time you got halfway up the stairs, your ankles were in agony by being chewed by fleas. I would go there and light up two cigarettes and just wave them around.
Was your grandmother or aunt ever diagnosed with anything that may have explained what happened with them?
Michelle: Oh, no no no! They never believed in doctors. My grandmother was a devout Catholic but became a Christian Scientist, so she didn't want anything to do with going to a doctor.
Christopher: [Little] Edie was healthy as a horse. She lived until her 80s.
How hard was it to be in the theater tonight and hear people laughing at them?
Michelle: It's a very hard movie to see. But it is easier than the documentary because I will never forget the first time I went to see it. People were laughing, and it was just horrific to me. My father refused to see it. But I believe [the HBO production] is great. I believe it's presented in a way that these are not people to spurn.
What do you think your grandmother and Little Edie would think?
Michelle: I think Edie would have loved it. She would have said, "You know, this is my chance!" Hard to say about my grandmother. She was a star in her own right.
I found this to be very interesting, particularly the details about Lange's life, which I had been unaware of.
From The Standard Post, on April 21, 2009
The Dilemma in Reviewing HBO's Grey Gardens
I've just finished watching HBO's Grey Gardens for the fifth time in two days. Sitting in front of my computer, still a bit taken by the film and the story it is based on, I decide that today will be the day I turn into Pauline Kael and this review will actually, I don't know, matter.
Focusing solely on the categorical rules set up by both the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, HBO's Grey Gardens is a film, not a "TV-Movie". Adding credence to this argument is the fact that this film was shot in 35 millimeter, was initially intended for and first premiered in several motion-picture theaters prior to having its first encore on the cable masterwork channel, HBO (to say nothing, yet, of its gravitas as both a true story and motion-picture event).
Technically speaking, even if minutely so, the above facts qualify it as a film, rather than just another "television feature", with all of the backhanded, albeit sincere, compliments that particular categorization entails. Much as the intentions and quality of the Maysles brother's 1975 documentary elevate it from it's cult film status up to something truer and more humane—a work of art, really—the intentions and quality of HBO's production of this true American story elevates it from just another tell-all biopic up to something much more resonant and imperative.
It is a film, there's no question about that. Better yet, we should call it "a motion picture", in the purest sense of the phrase, one that halts and moves in varying increments, blossoming into something much more colorful and vibrant than its origins and illuminating its subjects—both the actresses and the women they portray—with a light that is both harsh and tender—all at once, as I'm sure the real Beales would've had it. HBO's Grey Gardens is a brilliant portrait of two women—again, I stress, both the actresses and the women they portray—doing things others dared them never to do, displaying a love of art and for each other that is as seductive as it is truly Divine—in both the spiritual and figurative meanings of the word. It shares the same charm and authenticty many have found in the documentary.
Financial, social and political interests both delayed the initial production and prevented the final film from being released in theaters properly, as it should have been. Ironically, the same interests that prevented the Beales from being taken seriously and deemed "normal" by standards they had nothing to do with. Societal standards in general, but specifically the standards held by the rich and elite whom created, raised, surrounded and eventually abandoned the Beales, all played a big part in the Beales' eventual descent. Even when it came time to redeeming them, exploitation and entertainment value seemed at the forefront, above and beyond—and far more profitable than—true understanding.
Perhaps these sentiments remained when it came time to reviewing the true works of art that were inspired by the Beales. Many times the story was too risqué or the plight and "insanity" of both women was even, to some, too depressing, uninteresting and, worse yet, pointless to give full attention and praise to. How can a story so ambiguously received have such a lasting appeal and resonance and not be "brilliant"? I, myself, love every incarnation of the Beales' lives. Critics, however, since the beginning, have been mixed in their reception of both the documentary and the works of art that it inspired.
Critics applauded, but the ones that seethed and bit were most effective in, at the very least ,tarnishing the legacy of Grey Gardens and its importance in our varying social, economical and, most importantly, spiritual landscapes. Various incarnations of Grey Gardens have all suffered in one way or another because of society's tenacious need to always blame someone for something. We've all enjoyed criticizing and laughing at the Beales more than we have truly understanding and accepting them as "one of us". This notion has prevented Grey Gardens, both as a real chapter in American history and as a figment of the imagination, from being taken seriously and unjudgementally. This notion can also hinder HBO's film and its potential in being considered "a classic".
It's good to keep in mind, however, that no matter how primal, egotistical and ugly the battle may be, becoming a real individual, as Big Edie emphasizes in a pivotal scene in both the documentary and film, is a battle that we all share and fight for ourselves. Including those who consider themselves, if not publicly then privately, the real "elite".
Ironically enough, it is those same elite who eventually had a hand in driving the Beales down the path of poverty and madness they descended into, if only because of their general intolerance of human frailty and eccentricity. The elite are a surprising bunch: Hollywood and the "upper-crust", in general of course, but oddly and scarily enough, when being extremely objective, "us", as well. Yes, even us "ordinary folk" who, while taking in the breadth, scope and meaning of the Beales' story, have caught ourselves whispering "I could never live like that". Many have claimed how they simply "don't understand", as they watch the Beales unravel before their eyes. Right. Perhaps it is this nagging and collective responsibility for the Beales' descent that prevents many of us from seeing the true meaning of "Grey Gardens" as an entity. After all, many of us "could never", but I'm sure, secretly, many of us already have, in one way, shape or form.
The documentary was a true testimony and validation of this real battle happening through the lives of two very stoic, spirited and, at times, staunch women. The Beales in life and in art, in our staged and cinematic theaters, and now in the quiet and privacy of our own homes on HBO, have battled against certain facets and eccentricities of character, against social and political conventions—"not set up by me", as Little Edie declares in the documentary—that hindered the both of them, preventing either from being seen as the sane, talented and charismatic individuals that they really were, rather than the "mad eccentrics" and "wonderful characters" they have become to many.
Just as the disaster of Katrina is not the fault of the victims of Katrina who fought and survived its carnage, struggling even to this day to overcome and stand victorious over their current dilemmas, the Beales, although having played a major part, can be said to hold just as little responsibility for their predicament. They did what they could with what they had, knew and were offered.
Ironically, this leads me to state the case that the producers, writers and director of HBO's Grey Gardens, along with the two actresses that took on the iconic roles of the Beales, should not be judged, necessarily, on how they interpreted this true, gothic American tale, but on why and on what they all struggled and succeeded in conveying—especially when considering "what they were dealing with" (another stolen sentiment of Little Edie's).
If we focus on the "principle humans of the piece", both pairs of women, spanning the HBO film and the documentary—all iconic in their own rights—have endured, survived, found redemption and eventually captured not only "the true American spirit", but the human one as well in their various art forms and lives, literally and figuratively.
Grey Gardens, the original 1975 documentary by the Maysles' brothers was never, in my opinion—and after close scrutiny of both documentaries and extensive research on the Beales' lives—intended to be exploitive or "made-for-reality-TV". I do believe that the Beales were just as captivated by the Maysles as the Maysles were by them, and that the relationship that they established and enjoyed, far from being exploitative, produced the documentary that has become "an official phenomenon", as many deem it now, more so than ever. It was a human relationship in the truest sense of the term, between artist and subject that blossomed out of a desire to capture not only another human relationship, but the fight that dominated that relationship: that of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale fighting to remain true individuals, which, in the end, reveals a tragic, revelatory, and most of all, utterly necessary story.
By criticizing the intentions and "final results" of the either the documentary or HBO's film—or any other Grey Gardens incarnation, for that matter—we, in essence, miss the point. This is not about showcasing anything perfectly, but understanding it all, if that makes any sense. Many have asked, "What is the point of telling this story again and again and again?" The point, to put it simply, is to understand completely, while throwing all caution to the wind. And with each incarnation of the Beales' story, a new layer is added and discovered, never-before as brilliantly showcased as in HBO's film. The desires, passions and relationships all translate beautifully into HBO's telling of the story of Edith Ewing Bouvier and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale.
In recent social, economic, national and global events, we have seen a plethora of stories both tragic and redemptive, seemingly complex and perplexing, yet utterly relevant to all of us—human beings living in various societies with myriad hidden and established "rules" that have, to be fair, both strengthened and destroyed some of the "weakest" people of these same establishments. Take into consideration:
The War in Iraq, the shooting of a young black man in the back, at point-blank range, by a team of cops who seemed to have had "the situation already in control"; the bigoted, if truly sad, old woman who, during the Obama/McCain "Race to the W; the invasion of the polygamists and the ensuing valid and conflicting discoveries that followed; the shooting of a young, black man hite House", declared our soon-to-be President "a Muslim", as if there were anything wrong with one considering themselves a true Muslim; the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender Community being denied it's rights to marry, which in turn has basically stripped them of the right to create and establish families of their choosing (which, since my anger and conviction regarding this matter can't help but spill over, basically translates into denying someone—a mass of people , in fact—the right to "be themselves" and, most importantly of all, to love); the recent disclosure of both suggested and approved acts of torture against foreigners and American citizens alike—acts so horrendous and inhumane they don't seem worthy of mention if only because of the truly staining images they conjure up. Most sadly of all, the recent murders taking place, spanning from infants and children, to ordinary men and women, that splash across the screens of networks such as CNN, MSNBC, FOX and HSN, not only exploiting, in the truest sense of the word, but revealing a current and ugly underbelly in our society and in us, as ordinary people struggling to live with and understand each other. The stories go on and the tragedies become countless, but the meanings of those so-called tragedies are what are important.
Even the recent discovery of Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who made a splash on Britain's talent-show, Britain's Got Talent, echoes a portion of the Beales' story and battle, including the attempts to "change" and exploit Ms. Boyle.
All of these events and circumstances suddenly become relevant and akin to the same wars and battles fought by the Beales, albeit it on a much smaller, if just as poignant fashion. After all, they were strong woman, regardless of their elusive social and economical backgrounds, or their mercurial mental and emotional states. This is what should be considered first and foremost when reviewing both their real stories and the documentaries, stage productions and film it inspired. The courage displayed by all of the artists and creators of those variously impressive and interpretive works of art in bringing this True American Story to light should be honored by all.
HBO's Film, Grey Gardens, deserves just as much credit and praise. First, a note on the actresses.
Both Lange and Barrymore display facets to their screen presences as commonly categorized actresses that shatter any preconceived notions we may have had of them prior to viewing this film.
I must admit, when it comes to criticizing the performances of Lange and Barrymore in any truly negative way, I am stumped by my love for and utter understanding of the real Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, and their true enduring power. It was a power rooted in the belief that one should embrace the flaws, and whenever possible, display them to full effect. I'm noticing my tendency to do this when reviewing Lange and Barrymore in Grey Gardens.
To stray for a moment, the Beales were far from perfect, you see, and it is my personal opinion that they reached a point in both their shared and individual lives during which they let go of any hopes or expectations for a perfect life. Some may call their decision to actually want what they had, rather than hope for something more, "insanity". I call it a will, strength and brazen display of love that far supersedes any conventional, clichéd meanings of either of those terms. They embraced and reveled in showcasing their flaws, which usually were indicative of something far richer and deeper than any of our own fears and criticisms would have us imagine.
This willingness to display themselves as they truly were requires a bit more sincerity and sanity than it does to showcase the truly sad "put on a happy face and go out and take charge of the world" mask so many of us hide behind and display in this day and age; a day and age riddled with a rather pathetic infatuation with the superficial, yet still a day and age peppered with crime, both "Wall Street" and "ghetto", and an insatiable need to be one's "true self", even if it means sacrificing the "true self" one is fighting for to begin with. It is an age strung with bigotry and controversy, ironically displayed by some of our most prominent and revered "leaders", all over the conflicting special interests of two opposing parties that have become more and more indicative of our fears than they have of our true morals and beliefs. (This realization, I might add, was articulated by Little Edie in 1973, when commenting on "the Republicans", during one of the outtakes of the original documentary found on Albert Maysles' companion follow-up, The Beales of Grey Gardens).
In this sense, Lange and Barrymore, in their sheer willingness and authentic yearning to be the Beales, far supersede any expectations and easily bypass any criticisms that could've been placed on them by "fanatics" and "cold critics" alike. Along with the documentary, the film in question brings to light and strings together a coincidence that Grey Gardens, as both an entity and American Scapegoat, has never been able to escape: no incarnation of "the legend of Grey Gardens" was ever or has yet to be called a masterpiece unanimously. It has still remained "a cult classic" in the sense that there is still that question that baffles and aggravates many with its elusive answer: Who's fault was?
Whether the Beales were actually normal, eccentric or just bat-shit crazy", as one writer on a Grey Gardens blog recently posted, isn't really for any of us to decide. And by not defining "a villain of the piece", in either the true story, the documentary, the musical or the film, we are relegated to understanding any and all of "the villains" we each could've and willingly would've appropriated from the shared story and individual lives of the Beales. Was it the mother or the daughter's fault? Was it Ebersole who stole the show? Did Lange or Barrymore do better? Did any of them even get it right?
It is good to note that some of the same criticisms were also abound regarding the 1975 documentary, regarding both the execution of and intentions behind it. The musical was also criticized for being conventionally successful, yet a characteristically flawed Broadway production, which had its stars on display as impressionistic works of art, singing and dancing all too perfectly, some felt. Books, friends, relatives and associates of the Beales and other myriad topics surrounding their lives have been plagued by criticism as well. What would make criticism of this film a surprise or any different? In all cases, each endeavor to tell the story of the Beales has succeeded in its own right.
Wonderful is the fact that Lange and Barrymore shatter all pretenses, making HBO's Grey Gardens far more than just an entertaining tell-all. What is outstanding about their performances is the singular willingness they both display in bringing the Beales story not only "to light", but giving it and its true storytellers a voice and deeply human understanding that has rarely been given to them by any of the high-minded devotees of the documentary and its other various incarnations. When I say high-minded I'm not referring to the die-hard fans, who deeply enjoy the Beales for all of their talent and true magic, but to those who see them as, in art, "simple entertainment to showcase", in psychology, "classic archetypes to dissect and deconstruct", or, as in particular views and criticisms of the documentary and the Beales themselves, "tragic figures" . Make no mistake—the Beales had talents for music, comedy and dance, but their most important talent of all could be found in their devotion and determination to be themselves; their honesty and unconsciousness in front of "the spectators", regardless of what judgments and criticisms might ensue. This is not a feat easily acted or imitated.
It is this same devotion and determination to the singular principle of going for it and "staying on top!", as Big Edie declares in the original documentary, that make the performances by Lange and Barrymore towering and perhaps even iconic. They are honest and at times unconscious in front of us, the audience, "the spectators", just as much as the Beales were.. And, after all, aren't we taught that America is about making something "out of yourself", singularly and independently? In the case of the portrayals by Lange and Barrymore they do just that—they go "out of themselves", sublimely so, with both unnerving and astonishing results.
It is their willingness to "go for it", much as the Beales throughout their lives went for it that is so wonderful and lasting about HBO's layered and textured film. They excel in exposing and gradually unpeeling the several layers and visages they once depended on for pleasure and survival, both as actresses and as the legendary ladies they portray. In terms of "story", they seamlessly add a new dimension to the real Beales that is both irresistible and instrumental in transforming Grey Gardens from a "camp franchise" into something far more relevant and poignant. A True American Story, as I've already mentioned. Where it once always felt cultish and destined for the camp circuit, it now seems an elegant and tragic story that is riddled with holes and flaws, containing hints of sparkle and zest, yet remaining arrestingly relevant to all of us, as humans first, and Americans second. In fact, HBO's film gives the same impression many may have garnered from the original documentary: that of two women, utterly flawed, yet breathtakingly honest, in search and hopes of "telling the truth".
During the early 90's, after her legendary string of critical successes as a prominent actress of and during the 80's coupled with her decision "to take on", as she put it, Tennessee Williams' iconic heroine, Blanche Dubois in 1992, from his classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, Lange's consistency and once unmatched-potential as a legendary screen actress began to diminish. She portrayed Blanche Dubois a total of 3 times during a four year span, a portion of a year brilliantly performing the role for CBS' critically acclaimed production and tackling the role on the stage twice, once, unsuccessfully so, on Broadway and once on the West End to rave reviews. This "deep infusion of character", however, quickly seeped into her other film and television performances, the end result coming off rather stuffy and mannered.
This does not include a few exceptional roles during the 90's and 00's, in which she displayed her innate brilliance in underrated films such as Rob Roy, Losing Isaiah, Titus, Prozac Nation, Normal and Broken Flowers—all films in which she displayed both established (i.e. "cliché") and newfound talents as an actress, perhaps at times if only because of the various themes and subjects she was tackling: rape and marital loyalty; interracial adoption; revenge, madness and, yes, even incest and cannibalism; the effects of manic-depression, this time from the perspective of a "parent of the sufferer"; transgender acceptance and marital union; and, finally, a middle-age crisis', this time in a role that had her brilliantly and hilariously talking to animals.
A wonderfully produced and performed stage production of A Long Day's Journey into Night in the West End, during the early '00's, also surprised many, critics and industry-types alike, who found Lange possessing a much stronger, more trained and seasoned stage presence. These hints of gold in her choices alone make her one of our most important and vital actresses.
However, Lange's performances during the time mentioned above mostly suffered from lack of consistency and conviction. Most of her film and television work began working and depending on her knack for neurosis. To put it bluntly: The Blanche Dubois kind. She displayed overly mannered and thought-out gestures and delivery choices in her performances that had never been present before, and seemed rather fussy, hallow and superficial, bordering at times on cliché, amateurish and, yes, even campy. Films such as A Thousand Acres, Hush, Cousin Bette, Big Fish and Neverwas showed her displaying her usual ability for "raw emotion", if exploiting her newfound tendency to grasp for "the moment". At times it was gratifying to watch Lange during that period, but for the most part it was a grating and rather painful moment in her film career.
The above coupled with the rumors of her having gone the plastic surgery route, left critics and reviewers in general disappointed and at times found them resorting to downright insults. A quick overview of her criticisms in various publications throughout the time finds them peppered with comments such as "her face is immobile" and "she looks like she's wearing a mask". I'm not going to argue the point of whether or not she's had plastic surgery, because she has claimed she has not and I will respect that claim. However, let that not detract from the fact that I've had my deep and convicted suspicions.
These suspicions reached their pinnacle when viewing Don't Come Knocking, in which she gave a shattering performance which was marred by one fact: her face was immobile. It may not have been "surgery", but it was something. And it was painfully frustrating to watch because whatever "it" was, it didn't completely detract from the power and intensity of her final blow-up with real lifetime partner, Sam Shepard. She could barely contain herself and you sensed that the exchange she was having with Sam, from a screenplay written by him, went much farther than mere theatrics and camp. Perhaps she was finally letting him have it. Several gossip column and neighbor accounts during the 80's and early 90's, when living in both their Virginia and Minnesota homes, speak of the nasty and drunken public brawls between the two passionate talents. There was even a rumor floating around in which Shepard was accused of having an extra-marital affair. However, her "work" ruined the full potency of her performance.
It is also interesting, if perhaps superfluous, to note that Lange and Shepard, however, have never in their twenty-eight years of union, been officially married. This only acts to highlight how offbeat a woman and a true Hollywood Star Lange really is. (This is not to mention the other facets of Lange Hollywood and the majority of audiences tend to forget: her deeply charitable and humanitarian streak—she's a UNICEF ambassador and a champion for the children and young families suffering from the ravages of AIDS in foreign countries; her own failed attempts in the early 90's at adoption, which was covered by the major broadcast channels, but quickly disappeared under more interesting fodder—the adoption failed because the child, who was severely handicapped and slowly going blind, needed more care than Lange and her family could provide, breaking all of their hearts when the decision to "let her go" came; she's also an avid and, at times, truly gifted photography, having released a book of photographs late last year; and the list of facets regarding this truly mysterious and mercurial star can go on).
Back to the point: Lange's performance in this film has made me look at Lange's actress-handicaps and even at the possibility of her having had surgery, differently. Whether or not my perceived flaws riddling her latter work are truly there, and whether or not "the fact that she's had surgery" is true, are both totally irrelevant.
As Big Edie she is infectious, seductive, effervescent and finally transcendent. Keeping all the above mentioned criticisms and skepticism of her mannerisms and possible plastic surgery in mind, Lange displays a newfound willingness to be reckless, much as she did in her earlier, more acclaimed work. She takes risks that are commonly attributed to the deservingly lauded Meryl Streep and even accomplishes moments of sheer brilliance that could be termed, considering his own legendary status as "one who disappears", Brando-ish. She's quirky, awkward and at times skirts the peripheries of those same tendencies that handicapped her aforementioned portrayals, twisting and contorting them to her advantage, composing a performance that is both, pitch-perfect at its pinnacle, and charmingly sincere when it seemingly falters a bit. It's a performance that is marvelous in displaying little-known aspects of Lange—singing, dancing, sustained sex-appeal; aspects that shine even when they are imperfect because of the sincerity with which Lange showcases them.
Big Edie was far from being consistently perfect. She had her moments in which she shined brilliantly, just as Lange does portraying her, and this gives both of them a "priceless life" quality, displayed beautifully both in the documentary and film, in which you can sense they both feel that they have had their cake and eaten it, too. In fact, they seem to have "chewed, masticated and loved it," as both Lange and Big Edie pointedly exclaim.
But it was Big Edie's inconsistency, in the end, that would be the major cause of her downfall. It is in masterfully handling this barely-noticeable inconsistency that Lange succeeds supremely in her portrayal of Big Edie. Her portrait is at once jarring and comforting; tragic and humorous; campy and sincere, much like Big Edie must have been in her life. Lange excels in making the much-maligned matriarch seductive, adding a new meaning and understanding to the story of Grey Gardens. She captures the woman's at times faulty, but always daring spirit.
Lange has claimed to never have been able to sing and dance professionally, but she does so in this film, with zest and vigor. And, both as young and old Big Edie, her musical and dance numbers are both magical when they're precise, and charming when they lack that professional dance and music performer's oomph. You also don't sense that she's trying to show the audience that she can sing and dance, but rather that she is enjoying taking a chance in doing so, much as Big Edie loved taking chances. There's no showiness to her numbers as the youthful Big Edie, but sheer devotion and indescribable bliss. She displays this same passion and love during her rendition/mimicry-masterwork of older Big Edie's infamous number, "Tea for Two". She isn't an actress interpreting, but being a free spirit, in her own right. Watching her bust out into sudden-song, waving her hands in the air, her eyes rolling back and forth like that of a ragdoll's, you can't deny she's taking risks. Big risks that she tackles effortlessly.
There is a moment during her solo-number at her final party at Grey Gardens, a moment so fleeting it borders on the subliminal, in which she is truly possessed. She has leapt off of Gould's lap and is in the full throes of her manic-fever, when suddenly she throws her whole body back in ecstasy, only to bounce back up with a look and smile of sheer exhilaration, giving her an aura of youth I'm sure Big Edie thrived on, and that Lange, herself, hasn't displayed on screen in quite some time. Again, this isn't acting as much as it is living, in the Beales sense of the word.
Another subliminal moment flashes over us during the radio broadcast of President Kennedy's assassination. It is a moment in which we can clearly and unsympathetically witness Big Edie's drastic and unkempt decline in health and age; she coughs unapologetically, her face by turns pale and blotchy. Again, this isn't acting, but living "the part". You instantly are reminded that Lange, is, after all 60 years old and however much we may mythologize or criticize her beauty, when all is said and done, and the good lighting and make-up have vanished, I'm sure she has a days in front of her bathroom in which she frightens even herself. In this moment she shows that she isn't afraid to frighten the audience as well. The same can be said of her inspired and improvised "cat-stretch", as Little Edie declares that she should get dressed. Lange captures the spirit of Big Edie here, most of all, including/improvising a scene from the original documentary in an entirely different scene in the film. And when she does it, you can almost smell the sweat coming off of Big Edie, as she stretches and massages herself, much like the cats that surround her do.
In the end, you sense that Lange has tapped into something much deeper and primal, as a woman, in order to perform numbers she at one point hardly thought she could attempt, never mind imitate and, at times, improvise to perfection. Her attempts at comedy are also worthy of mention. She has moments sprinkled throughout this film in which her timing is both accurate to and inspired by the real Big Edie. The results are truly a site to behold. Be sure to pay special attention to her reaction when Little Edie insists to Big Edie that Joe Kennedy was interested in her. She's biting and utterly hilarious, even recalling/mocking Streep's particular, and sublime, kind of comedy. In this sense, her performance is, as I mentioned in my first review, a tour-de-force and just as much a revelation as Barrymore's in terms of courage and accuracy.
As the Big Edie we are all familiar with, she is perfect—saucy, comedic and at times, pathetic, recreating scenes from the documentary with astonishing accuracy; as the youthful Big Edie the film succeeds in revealing to us, she is a goddess—sexy, enchanting and seductive. Much of Lange's wondrous turn can not only be attributed to director Michael Sucsy's keen, editorial eye and breadth of knowledge regarding the Beales, but most important of all, to Drew Barrymore.
Barrymore hits just as many high notes. Her career and life, both public and private, has been riddled with traumas, failures and criticisms that, at one point in her career, found her tackling "cute and bubbly" roles in mediocre comedies in order prove and at times simply sustain herself. A few box-office successes and a particularly small, yet good film entitled Mad Love in which she portrays a manic-depressive adolescent running away from both internal and external demons, with extraordinary precision and honesty, highlighted by a scene in which she finds herself lost amidst the noise, both surrounding her and echoing in her own mind, has her displaying one of the most honest incarnations of a manic-depressive fighting the "solitary battle" I have ever witnessed.
I, myself, am a diagnosed bi-polar/manic-depressive survivor. Her gravitas in this performance is what first caught my attention and made me a true believer in her talents at a time when others shrugged her off as light and fluffy. This unanimously held belief coupled with her innate talent at being extremely likeable, has led many to forget the real and at times horrific experiences she has had to endure as a "childhood star" raised by dysfunctional parents. Her party and drug escapades are legendary in Hollywood and harshly counter the bubbly Drew, or should I say Barrymore, we've all come to know and expect.
Her performance in Grey Gardens is as equally daring and powerful as Lange's is. If we only consider that Barrymore is known for her sunshine-y disposition and valley girl vernacular, for her comedic skills and propensity for lighter fodder, her performance can easily be deemed a revelation.
However, when we consider that she is a woman, who by the age of 16 had already written and published a memoir chronicling her struggles, both on the home front and in Hollywood, dodging the bullets of familial dysfunction and addiction, in her quest to be true to herself and to her art, we realize how close to the Little Edie's heart Barrymore is.
Generally speaking, it is a gift to behold such a "lightweight" actress tackle some of the themes and emotional landscapes Barrymore does in her excellent portrayal of Little Edie. She uses her sweetheart gifts sparingly and yet, when she "resorts to them", she uses them effectively, giving Little Edie a sparkle and spunk that she undeniably had. Her courageous display of her innate talents as a dramatic actress is stunning. The scene in which Little Edie cuts off her hair in a manic frenzy could've easily descended into camp, but becomes truly heartbreaking because you sense that by showing that Little Edie is struggling to come to terms with the reality of her situation in the best way she knew how, Barrymore is, herself, fighting against all odds as an actress to prove herself, much as Little Edie struggled to do. Her struggle is distorted and scary, and at times I noted that it wasn't critics, the audience or Little Edie's struggle she was up against, but her own, both as an actress and as one who has endured much in her personal life. She is nothing short of divine.
Speak to me of Lange and Barrymore together, during their pivotal dance scene and immediately I recall how they transcend themselves as actresses by not giving us performances or acts, but by truly embodying the joy and exuberance that kept the Beales "on top" for so many years, together and inseparable.
By taking the unconventional approach as actresses, doing things they've either displayed infrequently or never before—singing, dancing, acting with sheer honesty and a striking lack of self-consciousness—they honor the Beales most of all by allowing themselves to be possessed. They give us the "flaws and all", at times displaying their own flaws as actresses, but never in a way that takes away from the momentum of their performances or the film as a whole. In Lange's and Barrymore's case, the nuances that escape them at times are just as perfect as the flaws the real Beales willingly displayed.
Many can cite a slew other actresses that could've taken on these iconic ladies, but I highly doubt the true, sparkling chemistry and "flawed perfection" found in this film would've been emulated as wonderfully as it has been by Lange and Barrymore, their faults and flaws in tact. Had other, more "technically proficient" actresses with neater lives been given the roles, we may have been met with something much too perfect and eventually empty.
Again, their performances transcend criticism, in large part, it's good to mention, because of the pitch-perfect chemistry found between the two, both in the dance number and in the various comedic and emotionally pivotal scenes in the movie. Their passion for each other, as peers, for this story and those two beloved women are boundless and, in my opinion, far outshine any flaws people may find with the film.
In terms of the production, writing and specifically the direction, I am absolutely inadequate in being able to convey what a visually and sequentially elegant, compelling and at times stunning film they have made. It's a masterpiece in the sense that it makes a beautiful story that has been plagued by so much ugliness and garbage, literally, something rich, beautiful and enchanting to behold. Nothing about this film or its production seems cheap. The glamour and ambiance shots are exquisite and by turns the shots capturing the Beales during the 1970's are eerily and, at times, disgustingly accurate. The images are at times like painting, both colorful and stark.
Rachel Portman's ethereal score should be given special mention. It is pitch-perfect, avoiding the intrusion most film scores impose on their films, and providing a layer of magic and surrealism that is akin to the collaborative compositions of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman.
I am not a critic but one who felt the need to express my deep appreciation and admiration of HBO's Grey Gardens, which not only captures the spirit of the Beales, both as they were and as they would've wanted to have been seen, but also adds a new dimension to their lives and makes them even more relevant to our current situations, as both Americans and individuals.
What I found important and surprising while finally assessing HBO's film and "Grey Gardens" as an entity was a sense of being opened up to something much larger: the acceptance of those who struggle to be themselves, either as artists, actresses or ordinary human beings, and how that acceptance on my part leads me to the realization that "the magic" isn't always necessarily contained within the delivery or "final product" of a particular piece or "work of art", but rather in the artists' intentions in bringing their vision and sentiments into fruition . In this sense, I believe Little Edie, Big Edie, Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange were true and authentic as both artists and ordinary people in displaying each of their innate sparks. The same can be said of all the other artists, producers and directors that have laid claim to their own unique and authentic twists on the Beales.
Then again, I'm an amateur critic with a hard life and some crazy stories, thoughts and feelings of my own. Who am I to judge.
Let's all just settle in for some "Tea for Two":
An old article, but still great! The woman mentioned at the end of the article is none other than Lois Wright.
From Architectural Digest, by Sally Quinn & Peter Vitale
Clues from the Past
Restoring the Beauty of Grey Gardens in East Hampton
We had looked in vain at houses for sale all week. Finally, in exasperation, the real estate agent said, “Well, there’s always Grey Gardens.” The name conjured up all sorts of images. Hundreds of cats, two eccentric old women—the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—decayed grandeur; a cinema verité movie of the same name; condemnation by the health department; ghosts in the attic; an eerie, dilapidated, romantic oceanside hideaway in the midst of an exclusive, perfectly manicured oasis of well-to-do in East Hampton.
“Little Edie” Beale, Jackie’s first cousin, niece of Black Jack Bouvier, met us at the door. Her mother, “Big Edie,” had been dead for several years, she explained, and she was now forced to sell the house.
Inside, the cat smell was overpowering. The floor was part dirt. The ceiling was caving in. Raccoons peered at me through the rafters. Some twenty cats scurried as we entered each room. Still I thought it was the prettiest house I had ever seen.
We returned to the living room, stepping carefully over the rotting boards. I touched the keys on the grand piano and it collapsed. “Little Edie” didn’t seem to notice. She did a waltz in the middle of the living room, and when she finished, she waved her arms magnanimously and said, “All it needs is a little paint.”
“You’re out of your mind,” was what my husband, Ben, said when I broached the subject. Every day I went back. I was obsessed. “You must have this house,” “Little Edie” told me. “You are meant to have this house. My mother has told me I must sell it to you. You are the only one who will return it to its original glory. Everyone else wants to tear it down.” I told Ben that “Big Edie” wanted me to have the house. “You’re out of your mind,” he said.
I went back. This time with Ben. He is extremely allergic to cats. He was crying when we finally got out of the house. His eyes were red and puffy and he couldn’t breathe. He had been startled by a raccoon. “You’re out of...” he started to say. “But Ben, all it needs is a coat of paint,” said I. Happily, Ben has a sense of humor. Also a sense of adventure. It didn’t hurt that he loves a challenge. This was a challenge.
In November I arrived in East Hampton to close the sale of the house. I ventured into the attic for the first time, to find everyone’s fantasy—a treasure trove of objects from a bygone era, unused for half a century. There was almost enough of everything to furnish the entire house. It was a true archaeological expedition, unearthing things that painted a perfect picture of the twenties and thirties. Everything I opened took me through the looking glass to discover another world—one of wealth and privilege, of travels and calling cards, of servants and beautiful clothes and, most of all, of a leisure that doesn’t exist in many lives today.
It was as though I had been left a set of instructions as to how to do that house, a tattered map with clues to follow in decorating. I took bits of torn chintz and pieces of old slipcovers and found fabrics that had the same feeling of summer and beauty and unstudied style. I scratched the walls until the original paint came through, the old East Hampton blues and greens and soft pinks.
As soon as the back side of the house, which faces south to the ocean, was opened up with French doors all around, the house became what I had known it could be—a cozy, warm, sunny, comfortable home. My goal was to have anyone who entered the house feel good.
Once we decided what we wanted to do with the garden, which was to recreate it as we guessed it must have once looked, the frustrating part was to wait for it to fill out. We knew it would take years to get that lush overgrown feeling that makes it look as if it had always been there. Last year in a Long Island library we found some old photographs of the original garden at the turn of the century. Incredibly, it was almost identical to the way we had designed it.
We still had to renovate the house after we bought it, and that would take a year, even though the decorating was already done in my mind. Everyone said we were crazy to try to do a house from Washington, so far away. But I knew otherwise. The day I discovered the attic, I had come downstairs and was standing in the rubble that was once the sun porch, looking out at the garden. Even though the sun was shining, the November wind made a spooky noise as it blew the ancient ramrod pine to and fro in front of the house.
Suddenly I heard a noise. I turned around and gasped as I saw a woman standing behind me. I have no idea how she got in or crept up without my hearing her. She introduced herself as a friend of both “Little Edie” and her late mother, “Big Edie.” She smiled a benevolent smile at me.
“I talked to ‘Big Edie’ the other day,” she said in a totally matter-of-fact way. “She wanted me to tell you how pleased she is that you have bought Grey Gardens. She wants you to know that she believes you will make the house as beautiful as it once was, and that she will be watching over you to make sure that everything goes perfectly and that this will be a warm and loving and happy house.” And so she did.
If you want your home to be reminiscent of Grey Gardens, you can either start collecting piles of cat food cans, or follow these tips from People magazine on Kalina Ivanov's design of the living room of Grey Gardens. Perhaps the best tip here is the color of the walls: the paint color used was Benjamin Moore's "Grape Gum" (2068-20), which was adored by style guru Hamish Bowles. Kudos, Kalina, and thanks!
From People magazine
Wow! Our girls are popular!
From E! Online, by Joel Ryan, on April 21, 2009
Drew Barrymore's Gardens Greater Than Zac Efron?
1. Could the HBO-aired Grey Gardens have been a No. 1 box office hit?
Assuming every single member of its premiere broadcast audience bought a ticket over the weekend, and assuming the competition remained the same, then no, Grey Gardens would not have opened at No. 1.
But its 1.8 million Saturday night viewers (not including replays) would have translated into a roughly $13 million weekend, about the best a grown-up drama can do at the box office these days.
As it was, the movie—cats, squalor and all—was HBO's fourth most watched TV movie of the last five years, the network said, outdrawing the likes of Recount and Mrs. Harris.
It would be wonderful for them both to be nominated!
From New York Post's Page Six, by Richard Johnson, on April 24, 2009
'Grey' area looms for Emmy
The Emmy Award nominations won't even be announced until July 16, but drama is already heating up between HBO executives and the cast of "Grey Gardens."
According to an insider, the cable net has been pushing Drew Barrymore, who plays "Little" Edith Beale in the well-received HBO movie, to put herself in the running for a Best Actress in a Movie or Miniseries Emmy nomination. Hoping to maximize its awards tally and prevent a vote-splitting scenario, HBO suggested to Barrymore's co-star, Jessica Lange, that she agree to put herself in the running for a Best Supporting Actress nod.
But we're told Lange wouldn't go for it. "Her immediate reaction was that she's won two Oscars, and that she has equal screen time to Barrymore," says our insider. "She felt she wasn't a supporting character in the film, and that it'd be dishonest and a manipulation of votes. She didn't want a part of it."
After weeks of back and forth, HBO finally decided to allow Barrymore and Lange to go head-to-head in the lead category. "Now we have a scenario where either Lange will go home empty-handed, or neither will win," says our source. "It's unfortunate."
Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for HBO tells Page Six, "Both performances have been widely praised and critically acclaimed. We are thrilled with the reception that 'Grey Gardens' has received. HBO would never presume to dictate which category an actor chooses for award submissions. We do engage in a dialogue with actors and filmmakers to facilitate the process, but the actor's decision is always final."
Lange's rep adds, "Prior to the decision being made, there was lots of discussion between Drew, the studio and Jessica. Obviously people wanted a scenario where everyone was happy. At the end of the day, HBO was the one who looked at the screentime and made the call."
A wonderful photo and story!
From New York magazine, by Harry Benson, on April 19, 2009
Grey Gardens, Before the Maysles
My wife and I drove out to Long Island in 1971, as I had seen a small article about an eviction notice for Jackie Kennedy’s relatives. I knocked on the door. Finally I heard a ‘Yoo-hoo’ coming from an upstairs window. Daughter Edie let me in. Her mother, Edith, came down for the first time in eighteen months, looked around, and said to her daughter, ‘Edie, you haven’t been doing the dusting.’ This was three years before the Maysles documentary and almost a year before Jackie visited and had the house cleaned up. In this photograph, Edith sits in front of her portrait as a young woman.
I held off on posting this until the HBO film had aired and I could cover much of the initial feedback. Thanks to all who sent this in! It's wonderful, especially the photos!
From New York Times, by Julie Scelfo, on April 15, 2009
Reinventing Grey Gardens
A Drawn-Out Drama in Itself
Limelight, at least the reflected kind, is again shining on Grey Gardens, a 10-bedroom 1897 house near Georgica Pond here. Thirty-four years after its former residents, Edith Bouvier Beale, known as Big Edie, and her namesake daughter, who was called Little Edie, were introduced to the world in the Maysles brothers’ classic documentary, and three years after their life in the tumbledown raccoon-infested mansion on a wildly overgrown lot became the basis of a Broadway musical, HBO is rolling out a feature-length movie about them, also called “Grey Gardens,” this weekend.
The two Edies have become famous for the way they lived at Grey Gardens—the squalor of their home was especially striking given that Big Edie was an aunt and Little Edie a first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—and they will soon be even better known after being portrayed by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore in the HBO film.
The house’s current owners, who restored it after buying it from Little Edie in 1979, are celebrities themselves: Sally Quinn, the writer and Washington hostess, and her husband, Benjamin C. Bradlee, the former editor of The Washington Post. The couple have taken up residence at Grey Gardens every summer for decades, and have used it to entertain friends like Lauren Bacall and Norman Lear.
But one person intimately involved with the property is unlikely to be known to even the most hard-core Grey Gardens buff. For 23 years, Victoria Fensterer, an artist who designed and maintains the current gardens, has worked year round to preserve something of the wild spirit of the Beales’ Grey Gardens, on grounds that can nevertheless be navigated. “It is so lush, it’s on the edge of becoming decadent,” said Eden Rafshoon, a retired interior designer who has visited the Bradlees every summer for the last decade. “It’s extremely romantic, it’s very fragrant, and it’s extremely sensuous. It’s full of secret garden rooms and mystery.”
Ms. Fensterer began working on the property in the mid-1980s, several years after a bulldozer had cleared its two acres of the dense thicket of prickly aralia spinosa, commonly called devil’s walking stick, that had overtaken it. Early on, Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bradlee hired a gardener to plant a circle of flowers and two rows of apple trees near the house, but the results were far from what Ms. Quinn had envisioned. “It looked like a new garden,” she said, “but I wanted it to be wild. I wanted it to be just on the verge of being over the top. I wanted it to look like it happened by itself. I didn’t want it to be manicured in any way, because the house isn’t that way.”
Ms. Quinn met Ms. Fensterer in the summer of 1985 during a visit to her friends and next-door neighbors, the writers Nora Ephron and Nicholas Pileggi, for whom she had just planted several flower gardens.
Then 39, Ms. Fensterer had only recently begun working as a professional gardener. Although she had grown up tending delphiniums, roses, wisteria and apples in the backyard of her childhood home in Queens, she had studied sculpture in college and spent her 20s and 30s as a vagabond painter and blues singer, traveling in Europe and taking road trips across the United States in a Volkswagen bus. It wasn’t until she planted her front yard in Amagansett, N.Y., the town where she had moved in 1979, that she began to recognize gardening as a practice at which she could make the most of her strong senses of color, proportion and texture.
Her romantic cottage garden attracted the attention of several neighbors who asked if her services were available for hire, including one who knew Ms. Ephron.
In the months after Ms. Quinn hired her, Ms. Fensterer began studying the site, with the intention of beginning to plant in the spring of 1986. Clearing the immense thicket had revealed that the rectangular property, with the house at the center, was made up of several sections. Behind the house on the right was a wide-open space where Mr. Bradlee and Ms. Quinn had installed a swimming pool. Three tall privet hedges that had survived the bulldozing outlined an area to the left of the pool where Little Edie had said in the documentary that she had wanted a vegetable garden. And next to the house on the right was a cement wall enclosing a square the size of the house itself, which the original owner built to protect a flower garden and that had given the property its name.
That winter, Ms. Fensterer walked the property, took photographs, and sketched plans that she sent to Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bradlee. “It needed structure and dimension,” she said. “It needed more mystery. The patina on the walls suggests an ancient, Old World garden, but the garden was missing.”
As soon as it became warm enough to begin planting, Ms. Fensterer began tackling the property in stages.
First, she wanted to somehow enfold the area around the pool, which “seemed to just stick out in the middle of vast empty space,” Ms. Fensterer said. She anchored the corners with dense Pfitzer junipers, which have a dark, lacy quality, and planted layers of flowering shrubs including several species of hydrangea, white rose of Sharon, and lavender blue vitex, which give the pool a sense of privacy and enclosure.
Then she planted two upright evergreens to demarcate the entrance to a thatched cottage just beyond the cement wall that had also survived the clear-cutting, and surrounded it with tall flowers like loosestrifes, foxgloves, hostas and hollyhocks.
Next, in the area defined by the hedges, she created a narrow path that opens to a small patio in the back by rearranging stone pavers that had been placed there. “I always think about how people are going to move through a space, and you want to create opportunities to discover things,” Ms. Fensterer said. She also cut two strategic openings in the hedge to give visitors glimpses of the pool and beyond.
The following year she took on the walled garden, replacing the circle of flowers with a small expanse of open grass encircled by a 12-foot-deep ring of flowers. In summer, when the flowers are in bloom, they provide a shield of privacy for anyone sitting in two pale blue Adirondack chairs in the middle. “I would say there’s a numinous quality about it,” Ms. Quinn said of the ring.
Once that was done, Ms. Fensterer suggested the couple invest in mature trees that would give the landscaping the feeling of having been there for centuries. Three curly willows and a Japanese sephora were installed between the house and the pool, creating a dramatic frame for the grounds. And about a dozen evergreens were used to define spaces and create small settings for other plants of interest. “I like to create spaces that draw you in and then when you go there, it might frame another view,” Ms. Fensterer said. “It’s like a discovery, and once you get there, you might be able to sit there and linger.”
In the years that followed, Ms. Fensterer watched as the plants grew, observing and responding to their evolving relationships. “You have to guide the growth, and as the limbs grow, you prune them to emphasize shapes,” Ms. Fensterer said. “It’s like sculpting.”
Although Ms. Quinn and Ms. Fensterer both said they nearly always agreed on purchases and plantings, tensions arose briefly in the late 1990s after Mr. Bradlee installed a tennis court behind the pool and Ms. Fensterer said his idea to transplant a few hydrangeas as camouflage wasn’t enough to hide the metal fence. “It looked like there was a two-lane highway running through,” she said. Mr. Bradlee, who declined to say how much the couple pays to maintain the grounds, wasn’t thrilled by the idea of extra plantings. “You know, I was worried that it was costing a lot of dough. Period,” Mr. Bradlee said.
Eventually, Ms. Fensterer’s concerns won out, although Mr. Bradlee didn’t let her forget there were limits on how much he and his wife were willing to spend beyond the regular budget. Among the many notes Mr. Bradlee sent with his payments was one that teased, “I’m not John D. Rockefeller, and these are not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”
Now that Ms. Fensterer’s composition has had more than two decades to mature, the shaded nooks are even more hidden, the billowing flower beds are even more billowy, and the trees have become “characters,” to Ms. Fensterer’s way of thinking.
“I can’t imagine the garden was ever as beautiful as it is now,” Ms. Ephron said. “It’s truly a magical place. It’s one beautiful space after another, all of it very English—very, you know, pinks and lavenders. I’ve never seen a picture of it that ever conveyed how amazing it is because, in some way, it’s a sort of a distant cousin to the wildness that was there when the Bradlees bought the house.”
In the Maysles brothers’ film, Big Edie proclaims, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to leave here.” Pary Williamson, a 32-year-old yoga instructor who is dating Ms. Quinn’s and Mr. Bradlee’s son, Quinn Bradlee, was unaware of the echo in her reaction to the place, which she saw for the first time last weekend
“It’s like something from a fairy tale—it just doesn’t seem real,” Ms. Williamson said. “I didn’t want to leave.”
Got a Grey Gardens tip? Send it to BusterLovesWonderBread@gmail.com!