Edie Beale was many things: a socialite gone to seed, a drag-queen role model, the warning shot of reality television. The cousin of Jacqueline Onassis, she squatted in obscurity with her mother, “Big Edie,” for two decades in a Hamptons estate, their psyches twining like kudzu, until the early seventies, when Grey Gardens became first a public-health scandal, then the subject of a startling documentary. That movie, filmed by the Maysles brothers, transformed “Little Edie” into a peculiarly modern sort of star. Gloriously strange in her “revolutionary costume,” vibrating with self-assertion and self-delusion, Edie knew she was a celebrity long before anyone had heard of her.
The one thing she is not is the heroine of a Drew Barrymore movie. I bow to no one in my love for Barrymore, and in theory, she seems perfect for this HBO drama; herself the survivor of famous-family dysfunction, Barrymore resembles Edie in both her daffy grin and pop-eyed girlishness. As the fiftysomething Edie, her mimicry is impressive, her freckled arms slack, eyes wild with wasted glee. But whenever this movie re-creates Edie’s youth, the documentary’s anxious power—its air of poisoned nostalgia, its bold wallow in mental illness—is reduced to simpler themes. Barrymore’s Edie is a rich rebel who might’ve been fine if her parents had let her breathe and be. At moments—as when Edie crashes a producer’s dinner and his companions stare—a weirder character emerges, an unstable beauty boiling over with Wasp chutzpa. But when Edie descends into “madness,” hacking her hair, raw eccentricity shrivels into an adolescent crisis.
Jessica Lange disappears more completely; beneath her Big Edie old-age makeup, she gives off great sparks of wit and emotion. (She’s harder to take in flashbacks, if only because—there’s no way to say this nicely—her face is now as immobile as a mask.) But the movie’s best scene features Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie O., tiptoeing into the cat-pee-stained mansion, only to be confronted by a wild-eyed Edie, who hisses that she could’ve been First Lady. “I wish it had been you,” Jackie whispers. In such moments, Grey Gardens pinpoints a fascinating cultural rupture, the years the snob élite bit hard into the apple of pop-art fame.
Then the film’s final scenes collapse into phony closure. The documentary is presented here as a wonderful gift for Edie: recognition at last. “There’s nothing to regret,” murmurs Big Edie, and I practically shouted “bullshit” at the screen. The original documentary may have been predatory, but it captured something powerful, the face of failed optimism, the many meanings of the word “spoiled.” Sometimes it’s better to let strange be strange.