The Buzz

First glimpse: Grey Gardens, the movie adaptation

Categories: Movies, Television

Actress Drew Barrymore stars in the upcoming HBO film Grey Gardens. (HBO Canada)

In 1975, legendary documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles released Grey Gardens, a stunning and often painfully intimate look inside the lives of mother-daughter duo "Big" Edie and "Little" Edie Beale. Relatives of Jackie O, the profoundly eccentric pair had fallen from splendour and spent their days holed up in a dilapidated New England estate with an army of cats. This year, HBO is putting out a dramatic adaptation of the Maysles' iconic documentary. The revamped Grey Gardens, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, doesn't air until April 18, but a preview trailer's been released to the interwebz.

Take a gander:

When I first heard about this project while the team (which included Canadian Patricia Rozema, who co-wrote the screenplay) was shooting on the Toronto Islands last year, I felt a bit sick to my stomach. First off, the Maysles' original film is one of those don't-mess-with-it classics. Their Grey Gardens comes close to perfection, as far as documentary filmmaking is concerned. They capture the squalor and disturbing idiosyncracies of the Beale women and their lifestyle without resorting to crass exploitation. Though Little Edie is clearly a woman who struggles with mental illness, and Big Edie was teetering on the edge of dementia, Albert and David Maysles took pains to forge a genuine relationship with their subjects and strove to imbue their depiction of these fringe individuals with profound respect. The doc is a beautiful non-linear portrait that almost feels like a full-length feature, thanks to the depth of its multi-layered storytelling.

Secondly, Drew Barrymore? Don't get me wrong -- I harbour a lifelong crush on Drew, but my affection for the actor is based on her awkward portrayals of quirky individuals in offbeat romantic comedies (i.e. when she plays nymphets who hew pretty close to her "Drew Barrymore" persona). I don't really uphold Barrymore as an exemplar of dramatic prowess. So to imagine her tackling a character as complicated as Little Edie Beale -- a larger-than-life oddball who could easily turn into a trainwreck -- was worrisome, to say the least.

After watching the trailer a couple times, I'm still flip-flopping. I can't say that I'm instantly sold on the dramatic conceit of traveling back in time to reveal snapshots of Big and Little Edie's earlier years. On the other hand, providing crucial backstories goes a long way in making these characters understandable and sympathetic. Jessica Lange is scarily good as the papery-skinned, cat-covered matriarch. And Barrymore? Her sad-eyed performance as Edie reveals a woman who's trying really, really hard. Whether or not that's inherent in the character is up to the viewer. I went back and forth between feeling jarred by her over-enunciated, deliberate New England accent and thinking it was a dead-on imitation of Little Edie's inflection.

Here's a trailer from the original Grey Gardens for comparison:

What do you guys think? The comments section below is yearning to be filled with your thoughts.

--Sarah Liss

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