Some devotees of Albert and David Maysles' Grey Gardens will probably consider any production that takes landmark documentary as a foundation on which to build a feature film that uses poetic license a sacrilege. That's how righteous and devout the cult surrounding the Maysles brothers' 1975 epic and its two principal subjects, "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, has become.
But here is a suggestion: Forget what you know or think you know about the Maysles, Bouviers, Beales, Long Island's East Hampton and the myriad genres (from full-length musical to documentary about the making of the musical) through which Grey Gardens has been processed. (Did I mention Rufus Wainwright's song "Grey Gardens"?)
Forget it all. Just sit down in front of the TV and savor the spirited and daring performances of Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie, respectively, the poignant and eccentric mother and daughter at the heart of this film. And I do mean heart - there is a genuinely moving emotional payoff. This Grey Gardens made me care about these two characters in ways that not even the original documentary did.
Maybe a great work of art, and I do believe the Maysles' cinema verite film is just that, should raise more questions than it answers. But their original Grey Gardens answered no questions. The biggest one is how did the aunt and cousin of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, the wife of President John F. Kennedy, wind up in such straits, living with too many cats to count, raccoons in the house and not enough money to even heat the filthy, dilapidated mansion in winter?
HBO's Grey Gardens tells the back story, as it were, of the lives of Big and Little Edie, ranging back to the 1930s and starting with Little Edie's coming-out party as a debutante in Depression-era Manhattan.
Barrymore is superb. In fact, I have never seen her better. This is absolutely the coming of age of a serious and great actress. She changes everything about herself, from the way fans have seen her speak and move in other movies and interviews to the way she allows herself to be made up and photographed.
Little Edie, who had an offbeat but brilliant (at least that's what her fans say) sense of fashion, suffered from a disease that caused her hair to fall out. We see the hair coming out in clumps and Edie in various stages of loss. Barrymore further allows makeup artists to disfigure her skin.
Young American actresses rarely take roles in which they look anything but glamorous. That is what the great, older British actresses do. But Barrymore not only lets herself be shown in less than flattering ways, she takes the darker facts of Little Edie's life and builds her performance around them. Daring only starts to describe the artistic choices she made.
Lange's Tennessee Williams-like take on Big Edie as a dreamy character with artistic and bohemian aspirations who is married to a stuffed suit of a philandering banker is marvelous. The dramatic tension is in wondering whether this seemingly fragile character will shatter under the force of divorce and poverty.
Testimony to the greatness of Lange's performance is that as you watch, you wonder and worry about Big Edie, even though, thanks to the Maysles brothers and subsequent news accounts, you know how the story goes.
Grey Gardens airs at 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO.