Like many young people, I experimented with thespianism in high school and college. I wasn't really very good, but it left me with an appreciation for the difficulty of professional acting. And I've always liked crazy people. So this pair of movies was right up my alley.
That's right, there are two movies called Grey Gardens, and if you accept this mission you need to watch them both.* Both are about Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived like hermits in a rambling mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, and got crazier by the day as the house fell down around them. They had a lot of cats, and raccoons that they may or may not have thought were cats.
The original film is a documentary made in 1975. Some press in the early seventies had caused enough family embarrassment that Jackie O and her sister dumped enough money into the place so that it would meet code. It also got the Maysles brothers interested enough to come follow them around the house with cameras. But even having a film crew there apparently didn't convince the Edies to pick up after themselves or take out the garbage.
HBO made the second Grey Gardens two years ago, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore cast as the Edies. Many of the shots in the film mirror scenes from the documentary, but the story covers much of the two women's lives.
The acting is what fascinated me about the HBO version. Actors almost always pull traits or behaviors from real people when they are building characters. But building a character who is a real person, especially one who has appeared on film, must be a special challenge. Both women do an excellent job. They are as good as Brian Keith's Teddy Roosevelt in The Wind and the Lion, which is high praise coming from me. I have to give a slight edge to Jessica Lange. Critics really loved Drew Barrymore's performance, and it was certainly very good, but I didn't think she was quite able to capture the East Coast intensity of the real little Edie. It's not her fault. She's from California.
So if you like old crazy women, this is the pair of films for you. If not, just watch The Fifth Element again. You really can't see that too many times.
* Actually, there are a number of plays and books as well, but let's not go overboard.