In a way, it seemed like Little Edie lived a great life with her mother, Big Edie. Her days were spent in an East Hamptons estate called Grey Gardens, a luxurious 28-room mansion that was built in 1897. Big Edie bought the mansion in the 1920’s. Every day was a mini-adventure of spontaneous song and dance, swimming in the nearby Atlantic ocean, wearing (and jazzing up) her cousin Jackie O’s clothes, discovering forgotten bits of her family’s vast treasure trove of antiques and caring for her beloved pets. The sad and true part of her story–the thing that inspired the Maysles brothers to film a documentary in the mid-1970’s–was that all of Little Edie’s adventures took place amidst decaying walls, overgrown weeds and piles of discarded cans for feeding a growing kingdom of feral cats. The cat feces, fleas, raccoons and other vermin did not help matters either.
How did a stunning, talented, tenacious, spoiled little rich girl grow up to become an eccentric, dirt-poor recluse cooped up with her over-bearing mother? That was the question that HBO’s new movie sought to answer. Little Edie and Big Edie were living breathing Tennessee Williams characters. The Maysles documentary was an incredible peek into the lives of two extraordinary women living in very sad conditions. A New York Magazine article published a few years before the documentary premiered served as a startling eye-opener about Jackie O’s less famous, but frankly far more interesting, relatives. In the documentary you see the heart-wrenching breakdowns, hilarious fights between mother and daughter and depressingly squalid surroundings.
The real star of the documentary though was Little Edie’s contagious enthusiasm. Little Edie was in her mid-50’s by the time the documentary was shot, but she had the spirit of a woman half her age. She was a born entertainer. Her way of dancing, singing and accessorizing might not be your cup of tea, but I’ll be damned if you’re not entertained. She looked truly and utterly happy when she was performing. She was a beautiful woman who never had children, never married and (in some ways rightly) blamed her mother for her unfulfilled dreams of marriage. Both the documentary and the HBO movie suggest that Big Edie actively sought to undermine her daughter’s romantic endeavors.
Little Edie never got her Prince Charming, but she did find the love of her life…right there inside of herself. She absolutely beamed when she was singing and dancing. Sure, there were some underlying mental and emotional issues there, but when was the last time you laughed out loud or genuinely smiled about your job? We should all be so lucky to find a little bit of Little Edie in ourselves.
Photo courtesy of HBO films
Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange are fantastic in the HBO movie. They both give passionate nuanced performances. The audience gets to see the back-story to the extreme situation pictured in the documentary. Old families stories that are alluded to in arguments between the two women are brought to life in vivid detail. We get to see decadent pre-stock market crash living (I seriously want Drew Barrymore’s wardrobe from Little Edie’s early years) and emotionally rich scenes that will make you scream, cry, smile or all three.
The movie tied everything up in a bow that is a little bit redder and little bit neater than real life, but it is a wonderful treat to watch and it’s something I would have gladly gone to the theaters to see.
After watching the HBO movie and then the original documentary, a million thoughts (about love, genetics, choices, marriage, etc) came to mind that will most likely become separate blog posts. One thing that really stuck out to me though was the relationship between mother and daughter and how much we, as women, are influenced by our mothers.
I’ll leave you with a wonderful example from the documentary of how complex the mother/daughter relationship can be. At one point, Little Edie misquotes the famous lines of Robert Frost’s poem entitled “The Road Not Taken.” Little Edie tries a few times, never quite getting the lines right though the sentiment is there. Big Edie is unseen, but heard in the background chastising her daughter for getting the words wrong and adamantly stating that no one wants to hear her quote Frost. But then Big Edie says that Little Edie’s poems are better than anything Frost has ever written.