Grey Matters – Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange

FASHION Magazine

For the past 30 years or so, Edie Beale Sr. and Jr. have been the world’s most obscure super stars. The 1976 documentary Grey Gardens, created by acclaimed filmmakers and brothers Albert and David Maysles, captured their kooky and co-dependent existence in a derelict East Hampton mansion that they shared with countless cats and raccoons. The movie made the former socialites instant icons in the gay and fashion communities, where their status borders on deity. However, to the rest of the world they have largely remained unknown. Until now that is. A new HBO film, written and directed by Michael Sucsy, and starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the infamous mother-and-daughter team is set to do two things: introduce the ladies to a mainstream audience and fill in the blanks in their riches-to-rags story.

“I told Michael that if he would take a chance on me I would give my life over to this thing. And I did.” says Drew Barrymore who fought hard to get cast as  “Little Edie”, as Beale Jr. was known to her family and fans. It’s easy to understand why. The part packs the kind of once-in-a-lifetime juiciness that makes Blanche Du Bois seem boring. Through the course of the movie, Little Edie goes from a celebrated 18-year-old society beauty to a bald, impoverished and isolated 58-year-old town eccentric. But through it all she manages to hold on to her irrepressible creativity, charm and dream of fame and glory.  “It’s a rare opportunity to play someone who is so divinely garish and entertaining but also so damaged and internal,” says Barrymore, “She has the most righteous insecurities. But she will also walk into a room wearing nothing but a bathing suit and a piece of lace and high heels and dance around in front of a camera. She is a walking contradiction.”

The complexities of Little Edie’s character are in mirrored in her odd but strangely appealing appearance. Her heartbreaking determination to make the best of her receding hairline and limited resources by wrapping sweaters and table cloths around her head, have become an enduring fashion inspiration. For example, she has been the subject of several Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editorials, Marc Jacobs named a handbag after her a few seasons ago and she served as Philip Lim’s muse for his Fall 2007 collection. “ I love the fact that Little Edie was so fearless and unpredictable in her dressing, says Lim, “She was able to imagine ordinary pieces of clothing for extra-ordinary usage in terms of styling and functional purpose.  Also, her sense of proportion and balance was spot-on.”

Little Edie’s mother is an equally fascinating character. The aristocratic and rebellious ”Big Edie” Bouvier Beale hailed from what could be considered “American royalty”, (The Edie’s were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ aunt and cousin respectively, and, yep, she makes an appearance in the movie), but her love of singing and disdain for appropriate Park Avenue behavior made her the black sheep of the family. “I absolutely adore the woman,” says Jessica Lange, “She was a unique spirit with tremendous courage who turned her back on everything that was expected of her. She had the strength to say: ‘I don’t want any of it, you can withhold your money or whatever you’re going to do, but I’m not going to live that way.’” What Big Edie did want, however, was the constant companionship of her daughter. The two lived alone together in their rapidly decaying house for 25 years, most of them spent in complete isolation.

The original documentary masterfully portrays the hilarious and horrifying nuances of the Edies’ co-dependent life as they banter, quarrel, sing and dance together. But it also raises some extremely nagging questions: “Why do they live in such squalor?” “Where is the family fortune?” “Why didn’t Little Edie get married?” and “How did she lose her hair?” Director Michael Sucsy found these matters so intriguing that they propelled him to create a screenplay. “Watching the documentary I realized there was a bigger story behind it. I kept thinking: “How did this happen?” Starting with Little Edie’s death certificate (she died in 2002, while her mother passed away 25 years earlier) and tracking down the executors of her estate, Sucsy started to meticulously piece together Beales’ mysterious past. “I tracked down Edie’s journals and diaries and poetry,” he says,  “I suppose I became obsessed with uncovering as much as I could.”

The story he found is fascinating, sad, inspiring and very human. In the telling of it, Barrymore and Lange flex their every acting muscle. Besides aging 40 years and plunging the emotional depths of heartbreak and despair, they also had to render pitch perfect recreations of two beloved cult figures, with an army of vigilant fans. “A major concern for me was the people who were very loyal to the documentary and love Edie,” says Barrymore, “I just wanted to do right by her.”  Finding the connection between the aging eccentrics and their glamorous younger selves was another tricky part. “As an actor you really have to find a thread that makes it believable that it’s the same character. It’s a huge challenge,” says Lange. Both actresses, who formed a close bond during the filming, were moved by the Beales’ intense relationship. “It’s a very unique love story,” says Lange, “There are so many layers and I don’t think anybody will fully understand the complexity of this relationship, but these women stayed connected to each over all these years. I think they were fascinated with each other.” Barrymore concurs: “These women kept each other entertained, you can’t even say that about a lot of married couples. Hell, they were laughing together for 40 years. I say bravo to them!”