Sep 28, 2012

[Movies] Grey Gardens (2009)

While watching the new NBC sitcom The New Normal, I was surprised to see young Bebe Wood dressed in a shawl and acting rather eccentrically. Naturally I started laughing since I immediately recognized that she was channeling the HBO movie Grey Gardens and I ended up needing to re-watch the movie in order to give Tobie better context as to why the young girl's performance had been so spot on.

And this wasn't exactly a movie that I had gone out of my way to watch - it was just something that I ended up seeing because of my mother during one of my visits home. All I knew from the onset was that it was an HBO production and that was that - I had never seen the original 1975 documentary that helped inspire this movie nor have I seen the stage musical (although I have the soundtrack on file).

It's hard to describe the movie in just so many words. I can't even say whether or not I truly "liked it" given the rather complex tone of the movie. Needless to say, this movie presents a unique experience, one that is a little hard to swallow sometimes since you have to remember that this is based on the lives of real people after all.

Synopsis: Grey Gardens is a 2009 HBO TV movie directed by Michael Sucsy with a screen play by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema. The movie won numerous awards including both the Emmy and the Golden Globe for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

The focus of the movie involves a mother and daughter pair who share the same name - Edith Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore) and her mother Edith Ewing Bouvier (Jessica Lange). To help tell them apart they ended up being called Little Edie and Big Edie respectively. They come from a rather well-to-do family and members of New York high society and Big Edie is actually related to Jacqueline Kennedy  (Jeanne Tripplehorn) as cousins. However things shift over the years and the mother and daughter withdraw to Grey Gardens, their summer home in Long Island.

The story jumps back and forth between the dark and depressing Grey Gardens during the filming of the 1975 documentary of the same name and back in their more glorious past. Thus we slowly trace the progression of the story of these two women and how they became intertwined tighter and tighter by circumstance and misfortune.

The movie is definitely carried by the strength of the acting, and I know it couldn't have been easy to accomplish what they did. After all, the end result of trying to portray two rather eccentric women without just making them appear one-dimensionally crazy is far too tempting as an easy way out. But instead it was clear that there was a serious effort to humanize their character despite years of unintentional caricature in terms of their depiction in popular media.

I have very mixed feelings about Drew Barrymore's performance, and this is despite the fact that she actually won a Golden Globe for her performance. I guess it was just so quirky to have her and her put-on accent, which I felt to be rather distracting at some points. But outside of the accent, well, then yes, she was definitely impressive and it's definitely easy to feel for Little Edie because of how she portrayed the role. And more importantly it's not like she's acting in a vacuum - she does wonderfully on-screen opposite Lange despite her relative age and of course the power that Lange brings to any performance.

There's no questioning the unique acting skills of Jessica Lange and now with the benefit of hindsight it almost feels like her performance here was what she once again channeled in her current TV series American Horror Story. And she also had some very, very impressive make-up work done o her to age her throughout the movie and yet not hampering her ability to perform. And that's the thing here, I suppose - anyone can just put on some make-up and prosthetic appliances but to still be able to put on a meaningful performance. So definitely hats-off to you Jessica Lange! Your Emmy was much-deserved.

The tale of the Bouvier women is indeed a difficult one to truly grasp, from a movie-watching perspective. At times you want to laugh at some of the more trivial hardships that they undergo. And that shifts to just feeling really, really bad for the sad plight that they end up living through in their latter years. But how are you supposed to feel about them in the end? Should we be happy that they get another lease on life? Is Little Edie living out some strange karma despite her devotion to her mother? and what about Big Edie's transgressions - is her final state in life a fitting way to "balance the scales" or something like that?

And the main reason that the movie is so powerful is the fact that it was done so well. Beyond how they movie is in fact based on the lives of some very real people, it was also done in a manner that made it feel very real. There was remarkable attention to detail from start to finish and that just added so much to the overall experience. It certainly took a very skilled director (and the unique resources of HBO) to execute this movie so well.

Grey Gardens is a unique movie experience that has the majesty of any other dramatic work with the emotional impact of any good documentary. Thus I rate the movie 4.5 feral cats out of a possible 5.

And we'll end this post with the trigger that started it all - Bebe Wood dressed as Little Edie from Grey Gardens.


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