Coco At the Movies: Grey Gardens, HBO

Posted By: Coco Buchanan

Having not seen the entire 1975 Grey Gardens documentary, I was a little spotty on some of the details about the lives of “Big” and “Little” Edie Beale.  Thus, perhaps I have a different (and inaccurate?) perspective on how well this movie does justice and compliments the original documentary.  Overall, I have to say that I found this movie to be at once sad and really inspiring.  Though it could be a little Lifetime-y at times, and though it could be argued to be far too happy as compared with the reality of their situation, I really enjoyed it.

Barrymore and Lange, in the Behind-The-Scenes clips on HBO On Demand, have both iterated that this film is a love story between a mother and daughter.  But more than that, I found this to be about how these women felt the need to distance themselves from society to feel free, and yet were also trapped from and by themselves. 

Specifically, what was most illuminating and interesting to me, at least in this film, was “Little Edie.”  All she wanted to do was act and dance, fulfill the types of dreams she perceived her mother not to have fulfilled for herself, and wasn’t interested in getting married (“The only thing I’m looking for in a man is a dance partner”).  However, it seems that although “Little” Edie  felt a certain responsibility in taking care of/living with her mother, she may have used that as an excuse to not try to succeed in the world again.  To a certain extent, going back to living in Grey Gardens, secluded from the world, can be seen as a rebellious act.

“Little” Edie may have, in fact, been taking an uncompromising position toward the way the world demands women should live and who they should be.  She may not have wanted to lie to herself and follow her mother’s advice in “having your cake and eating it too” by getting married and just “doing whatever” she wanted.  As time would prove, “Big” Edie was totally wrong and didn’t get what she wanted after all. 

Of course, there are the typical mother-daughter issues highlighted in this movie that many of us face, and there was certainly an unhealthy co-dependency that existed between these two women.  Though, it made me wonder: were these women truly insane?  Or were they just reacting to an insane situation?  Perhaps a little bit of both.  Maybe that’s the definition of the human condition?

Anyway, I couldn’t help but take joy in the end, though, when “Big” Edie finally let “Little” Edie go, in a sense, and after “Big” Edie’s death, when “Little” Edie finally found the success she always wanted, against any normative standards of who should and should not live this type of success.  It was actually very inspiring, especially since, I have to say, I related to “Little Edie” a great deal.  

As far as the performances, I have to say that this is Barrymore’s best work to date, and she was actually perfectly cast.  I’m not sure if it was the strength of the story, direction or what, but I really have changed my mind about her as an actress.  Lange obviously nailed this, though some reviewers faulted her for, in the flashback scenes, having a face as “immobile as a mask” (I think that was New York Mag).  The film was also criticized for fetishizing and somehow prettifying the horrible squalor these women lived in.  I have to disagree there….I thought they did a pretty good job of making it come across as pretty foul. 


Anyway, despite its faults, I think it’s a pretty unique movie in that it’s entirely focused on the experiences of women, and specifically, mothers and daughters.  Again, it was incredibly inspiring and rare to see a woman like “Little” Edie Beale not completely demonized and pitied.  And to an extent, if being a crazy cat lady means making up crazy costumes and being just as fabulous as “Little” Edie Beale, bring it on…sans the squalor.


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