The darkest moment in HBO’s Grey Gardens — the hardest to see, and (for me) the hardest to watch — was appropriately grey.
WARNING: SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP. If you haven’t seen it yet, and don’t want to know what happens in the “drama” part of the
Grey moves, like daylight or night’s darkness. It may fall upon you all at once, or gradually overtake you. You may see it coming, or you may not see it until it surrounds you. It can overtake the light of a world that seemed just within your reach, or overtake the darkness to reveal that the world you thought was yours has slipped away.
I’d never heard of Grey Gardens — the estate or the 1975 documentary — until the 30th anniversary of the Maysle brothers cult classic film rolled around, and Edith Beale (both “Big” and “Little”) became news again. I read an article, Tivo’d the documentary on HBO, and … became hooked.
I’ve written before that I’ve always been intrigued by abandoned houses. When I was growing up, I used to watch the abandoned shacks — and the occasional abandoned plantation house — zip past the car window on road-trips to south Georgia. I’d wonder about the people who livd in them, and what their lives were like. I’d imagine characters and invent whole stories. Grey Gardens was like being invited into one of those abandoned houses, and into the lives of its occupants, but no character or story I created could match the actual story of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale.
As I read up on their story, I immediately picked up why they were gay icons of a sort. Here were two women who were, despite the luxury of their surroundings, trapped by roles for which they were ill-suited, and longing to try on identities closer to how they saw themselves or longed to see themselves. And it seemed they longed simply for a kind of self-owned “somebodiness.” Big Edie’s longing to be a singer and Little Edie’s Broadway ambitions seemed a longing to “be somebody” at a time when women — even wealthy women — were nobodies without husbands, as Big Edie so tried to bring Little Edie to understand in one early scene, at Little Edie’s “coming out.” There was a great deal of cachet in being, say “Mrs. John Paul Getty” or even Mrs. Phelan Beale, but no value to speak of in only being Edith Beale, “Big” or “Little.”
Even at that point, greyness had already descended upon the mother — all but enveloping her, though for a while she fended off awareness of it with lively parties, bright lights, music, and a lover — and was closing in on the daughter.
If the mother had any idea of the encroaching greyness, she seemed not to know it was already upon her, thinkin that she could escape it or that it simply couldn’t touch her. Edie, though, watched it swallow up her mother’s marriage, and begin to devour her mother. She, too, thought she could outrun it, but had a clearer picture of what she was running from. She knew it was quite different than the painting of Big Edie that haunts the documentary, and HBO’s docudrama.
The closest Little Edie got to that idealized picture was doomed-from-the-start romp with someone else’s husband (a charming cad, solidly played by — no, that’s not Alec Baldwin, but yet another Baldwin brother). There was a subtle irony in Big Edie’s warnings to Little Edie about her married boyfriend, considering that Big Edie’s husband had just recently left her for his secretary, whom he ultimately married. So, dating a married man wasn’t always a road to nowhere. (Depending, perhaps, upon his wife.)
But the greyness doesn’t descend upon Big Edie with her husband’s departure, but holds off until the money and lifestyle that came with being Mrs. Beale departs as well, soon followed by the departure of her piano-playing “himbo” (who seemed to have come to the conclusion that a crazy rich lady is much more fun as a lover than what’s left when the hubby flees with checkbook in hand).
I don’t know whether it was the intent of the director or cinematographer, or merely the artistic sensibilities of all involved coming together to put the “grey” into “Grey Gardens” but at that moment, all color appears to fade from the scene, fading to grey as Big Edie is swallowed up in despair, and lingering in greyness just before fading to black. In reality, she begins to climb the stairs after her lover has gone, steps into the semi-dark, and breaks down. As Big Edie finally realizes how much she has lost, the greyness provides just enough light for her to make out how little, really, is left.
It isn’t long, then, before Big Edie reaches out of the greyness for the one “thing” — for what’s known about Little Edie’s childhood with Big Edie, mother treated daughter like something of a pet, frequently keeping the child out of school, claiming “illness” while having her daughter accompany her to movies, plays, etc.). And even for this, she needed one last thing from her ex-husband: to pull their daughter, her daughter, out of New York, out of the arms of her married man.
At the same grey train station her father passed through on his way home to finally leave his wife (a departure from the actual story, in which he supposedly broke the news via telegram from Mexico), Edie stomps past her father, not stopping to say goodbye despite his pleas. Big Edie tosses him a look conveying some kind of final victory, and he shrugs before fading to grey in the train station.
A word about the men in this movie. They are, it seems, the “masters of the universe,” in the sense that just about everything that happens in the lives of the Beale women hinges upon what one man or another wants, doesn’t want, or ultimately decides — Mr. Beale leaves Mrs. Beale and takes the money with his, Gould leaves Mrs. Beale the money rusn out, Edie’s married beau breaks it off, Mr. Beale dies and leaves his ex-wife’s trust in the hands of their sons, the Beale sons want to to sell the place and move mom and sis out, “the authorities want the place cleaned up and the Beales out, etc. — and the Beale women have always known it on some level.
In the beginning, Big Edie tells Little Edie she can do anything she wants, but she must get married.
“You can have your cake and eat it too,” says the mother, to which her daughter replies “No, mother darling, you can’t.” Mother knew that survival, for a woman of her station, meant being married to a man who could take care of her, but thought that was all there was do it. Her daughter knew that being taken care of by someone, anyone, meant being taken care of on their terms — something Big Edie, oddly enough would say to her on film decades later. “Find a man who will give you a long leash,” she said to her daughter, who seems to understand that a long leash is still a leash, and will choke once it’s stretched to its limit. Decades later, her mother would keep her on a very short list. Shorter, even, then most of the men would’ve.
For for all their life-altering power (even the Maysles, who fade in to the lives of Grey Gardens’ Edies, change the lives of mother and daughter by pointing a camera in their direction) then men in this film seem to disappear, quickly fading into the background after making whatever demands, decisions, or pronouncements the mother and daughter must then deal with. The Maysles were accused of exploiting the Beales, but even if that was true, it was perhaps the first time they were being “exploited” with their eyes open, and on their own terms to some degree.
Not all the decisions are the men’s. Nor are all the choices. At some point during the film, you stop counting the points at which making a different choice might have altered the could of Big and Little Edie’s lives, but the final fate-sealing moment comes after Mr. Beale’s death, when Big Edie learns how little she was left in the will, and that she doesn’t control any of it. She listens to her sons’ urgings that she sell Grey Gardens, and then to Little Edie’s hopes of finally leaving “Grey Gardens,” and this mother — who says some shockingly cruel things within her daughter’s earshot — declares she’ll never sell Grey Gardens, and will only leave it “feet first.”
In that moment, the greyness that has surrounded Big Edie, and that Little Edie has been trying to outrun finally overtakes her, too. And that night, with her hair coming out in chunks from a “nervous condition” mentioned earlier in the film., grief, frustration, and regret launch her screaming out of her well-lit room into the semi-dark, greyness of the rest of the house until she finds a pair of scissors and begins cutting off the rest of her hair in grief. She remains in shadow until Big Edie arrives to check on her and finally turns on a light, revealing the scene, and leading her daughter back up the stairs of the darkened house.
(This is a departure from reality, since the family maintains that Edie lost her hair due to a “nervous condition,” but at least one account has her setting fire to her hair, early in her internment at Grey Gardens, thus virtually sealing her fate.)
Finally, the light of the world beyond arrives. First, in the form of news camera’s drawn in by the irresistible link to America’s-closest-thing-to-royalty, and the how-the-mighty-have-fallen meme, accompanied by the “authorities” who’ve come to round up the “diseased cats” the Beales have been accused of harboring, and serve them with a notice of eviction if they place isn’t cleaned up.
That real-world intrusion brings with it something else. Up until now, the viewer might have no idea of the actual state of the house, because so much focus has been on the mother-daughter dynamic. But the sanition workers.
And then later in the person of the Beales’ celebrated-but-distant relative, Jackie O. herself., in a brief but memorable appearance by Jean Tripplehorn. bringing Edie face-to-face with something harder to look at than the current state of her life: how things might have been different.
A face-off between the two women ultimately ends in an apparent draw, when Edie weaves a story out of a chance meeting with Joe Kennedy Jr. that includes a potential engagement, marriage, Little Edie as First Lady, and ends with “I could have been me.”
Jackie, who’s looked troubled since stepping out of her San Antonio Top Limo service, looks her cousin in the eye and says, “I wish it had been you, Edie. I really do.”
This is another departure, since reports have Edie delivering this speech to Joe Kennedy Sr., at John Kennedy’s inauguration. But even if it wasn’t exactly what passed between them, it’s very likely that Jackie’s appearance brought back those memories, thus it gives voice to what Edie almost certainly had to be thinking when her world-famous, wealthy younger cousin appeared on their doorstep, bringing her face to face with what could have been.
I like to think it also marked a turning point for Edie, as Jackie’s demeanor suggested that being Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis wasn’t exactly — even minus the poverty, obscurity, walls soaked with cat piss and floors caked with cat excrement that were part of Edie’s reality — a cakewalk. More “successful” — in terms of marriage, money, fame, etc. — didn’t necessarily mean happier. Constant scrutiny may be as suffocating as obscurity. If being Jackie O. wasn’t all good, maybe being Edie Beale wasn’t all bad.
Edie seems to catch a glimpse of this when the two women come face to face, and maybe begins letting go of what might have been.
A word about the women in this film. Several, actually.
When I first heard that Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange had been cast in the principle roles, I knew I had to see the movie. Yes, both have a knack for playing somewhat reality-challenged characters. But, each turned in something far more complex than a mere portrait of insanity, portraying the Beales as women whose grasp on reality was tenuous, but hadn’t been completely lost. They held on loosely, but held on, and thus on some level couldn’t help knowing and seeing where they’d arrived, even if they managed to successfully deceive themselves much of the time.
Lange is at once marvelous, motherly, and malevolent all at once, in a performance that gives us a long look at a fully glamorized Big Edie at her peak, before her long, slow, slide into despair and disrepair. Lange could have turned Big Edie, called “mother darling” by Little Edie, into a “Mommie Dearest,” but instead delivers a compelling performance of a woman capable of overwhelming (smothering?) affection and stunning cruelty. As the movie goes on, Big Edie becomes more and more aware of how her choices and decisions impact her daughter, and towards the end says some incredibly cruel things within Little Edie’s earshot, with camera’s rolling.
Barrymore turned in a skillful, moving performance — one that could easily have been a caricature, but was instead a sympathetic portrayal of a flesh and blood woman. Anyone can throw a scarf on her head, and put on an accent (something else Barrymore handled well). But an actor must do more.
It’s usually a compliment to say that an actor “disappears” in a role, but it’s more accurate here to say that Barrymore absorbs the essence of the character — the flesh-and-blood woman she’s portraying, whose already known and adored by many — and gives us the Little Edie Grey Gardens of the photographs from her modeling days, and brings them the hope and naivete of the latter and the more brittle versions of the same traits in the former together in one woman; contradictions intact and as unresolved as ever.
My own acting experience was rather brief and very far behind me now. But at some point I remember grasping, for a moment, something that’s stayed with me since. Following the dictum from the playwright Terence (from whom, I guess, my own name is derived), “I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me,”, the challenge of an actor is to find her character in herself and herself in her character. That requires willingness and courage to visit some dark places inside of yourself, and live in them for a while.
In that sense, Barrymore and Lange both deserve Emmy nominations, if not statues, as reward for their courage in showing us the Beales’s humanity, reflected in their own.’
I probably see the movies and the stories of the Beales too much through the lens of my own experience. But that’s what makes them and their story compelling; the trappings of period and social position aside, their lives speak to that part in many of us that has dared, dreamed and been denied, that realized some disatrous decisions too late avoid the consequences, or regrets missed opportunities and looks back on them with bitterness.
That’s also why some of the lines spoken by the characters near the end of the movie — after they’d finished watching a rough cut of the documentary. Having watched their lives played out in lights and colors projected onto a bedsheet, they turned on the lights at Grey Gardens, and attempted to come to terms with all they’d seen, all that th lights and cameras had revealed.
“You had your chance and you missed out…”
“If you’re stuck, … it’s only with yourself…”
“Things could have been different…”
Things could have been different, but they weren’t. But finally seeing themselves through another lens, through another’s gaze, they have just enough light to finally come to terms with where they are. And, finally, it’s enough. Maybe being Edie Beale — “Big” or “Little” — still isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and perhaps will never be all that either hoped. But it’s enough. Just enough.
Grey may finally be just enough; just-enough-light for the world beyond, given time, to find its way to yours. Bearing its own light, or seeking a bit of yours.