Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Back to the Gardens with Drew Barrymore and Michael Sucsy
Expanded Edition of 4-15-09 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
The film poster, Barrymore in character at the height of Little Edie's beauty, director-co-writer-producer Sucsy, Jessica Lange as
Big Edie with Malcolm Gets as Gould her live in accompanist
The endless fascination that the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens has provoked in audiences – especially gay men – has given rise to
yet another version of the story of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy who descended
from the top of the social stratum and ended up living in squalor in their East Hampton mansion with numerous cats and raccoons
for company. Following on the heels of the Tony award winning musical version, out writer-director Michael Suscy makes his feature
debut with his marvelous adaptation of the story, also named Grey Gardens, for HBO (the film premieres Saturday, April 18 and
replays throughout the month). Suscy, who also served as Executive Producer for the movie, spent years combing through archival
material provided by Little Edie’s surviving relatives and then got his dream cast to enact his story (co-written with Patricia Rozema).
Drew Barrymore, in a career altering performance plays Little Edie, the beautiful daughter who dreams of escaping her mother Big
Edie’s clutches (a superb Jessica Lange) and the lure of Grey Gardens for a career as a dancer and singer in New York. The cast also
includes out actor Malcolm Gets as Big Edie’s one time live in, most likely gay piano accompanist Gould and Jeanne Tripplehorn as
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose intervention kept the Beales from being evicted from Grey Gardens when it fell into disrepair.
Unlike the documentary, the sumptuously produced film fills in the early lives of the Edies allowing us a glimpse into their once upon
a time life of wealth and privilege. The resulting film is marvelous, heartbreaking and fascinating. Windy City Times participated in
a joint interview with Drew Barrymore and Michael Suscy who both enthusiastically discussed the film. Excerpts:
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): Well let me ask you a question here about how you avoided making Grey Gardens kind of just straight
on campy. Because you walk this fine line between you know sensational gothic-type story but yet you keep it from just being kind
MICHAEL SUSCY (MS): Yes. I mean I think that the real answer is that I didn’t see it that way. I didn’t interpret it that way. I am
aware of those aspects of it. I mean, I think it’s wacky enough that it speaks for itself.
(DREW BARRYMORE NOW JOINS THE CONVERSATION)
WCT: Drew, would you purposely crack up? Like try and get Jessica to crack up and do some impromptu Bouvier?
MS: Drew stayed in character throughout shooting. So whenever they were saying anything that wasn’t a scripted line, she was still
behaving like Little Edie. So I think that naturally led to that kind of reverie on set.
DREW BARRYMORE (DB): When we were eating the ice cream also, and we had these fake teeth in and we are like chalky chocolaty
ice cream that we are eating out of a box, and we were sitting on the bed with our furs and our bean bag boobs and our prosthetics
and our fat suits and everything. And Jackie was knocking at the bottom of the door. We could barely do the scene we were
laughing so hard.
MS: I forgot about that. Yes. Yes and there was one day when Drew laughed and her fake teeth popped out.
DB: Oh my God. That is true. I was playing with them in my mouth and I laughed and it spit out the false teeth.
WCT: It sounds like this role was very much a career changing or life changing role for you. I am wondering how now going forward
this role will affect the way that you approach other roles that you do.
DB: Oh thank you. I really got to do what I wanted to do from the experience – to go so deep into something like never I have
done before. So it already has changed my life that I was given that privilege and trusted with that responsibility. And then the
discipline of what I did to be as authentic to her as I possibly could was definitely something that made me like mentally unstable,
but I now know that I am capable of that level of discipline.
WCT: Drew, what kind of preparation did you do, to get her mannerisms and the walk and everything?
DB: I love doing her older walk. She had such a particular shuffle with her hips, and her knees and her legs. And I had the fat suit
on so that also always helps me. And I studied – I started studying for a year a couple hours a day, five days a week for the
dialect. I knew this wasn’t like a yes like three weeks before like I should start. And then the cadence in her voice, the ups and the
downs, the highs and lows. The child-like mannerisms, the very calm 56-year-old woman, the angry little girl that is inside that 56-
woman – 56-year old woman. Also Katherine Hepburn became a huge support for me because I would watch her in Alice Adams at
18 and then in Bringing Up Baby in her 30s and then Adam’s Rib in her 50s. And that helped me understand how one person can
have a voice that was so famous that transcends throughout times, and it’s realistic to the person at 18.
MS: The other thing that we did was we worked on the prosthetics for over the course of the year. And Drew sat for at least three or
four makeup sessions.
DB: It was great too because we kept changing the prosthetics according to my face to make it look more like hers. Everybody
cared about every detail. We redid the teeth like seven times.
MS: Yes. And in a world that is completely – and a community frankly, that is completely caught up in beauty and use, both Jessica
and Drew were constantly asking to look fatter and older and baggier and frecklier. And that is – I mean practically unheard of these
WCT: I am just wondering about the end quote that we see at the end of the movie, “My mother gave me a completely priceless
life.” Was that meant to be somewhat ironic?
DB: Well I always believed that Edie is a walking contradiction. That was sort of my big thing with Michael when I first met him was
that she is a recluse, but she is a born entertainer. She bitched and moaned about getting out of this house every day of her life
yet the door wasn’t locked. You know she lived for her mother’s love and approval but would make her underhanded comments – all
that came with her. She had aspirations to be out there and yet fears that held her back. She wanted nothing but love, but rejected
it at the same time. And everything about her really contradicted itself. But I believe that she felt the things while she was feeling
them. But I just appreciate that that is her quote. I think it is fabulous. I think it’s fantastic. I feel like she meant it. And also,
it's saying, “I wasn’t always unhappy.”
MS: I would yes, echo everything that Drew said, and add that this whole – the documentary for sure and I think this film as well – is
something of a Rorschach Test. I think you get out of it in some ways what you bring into it even if it is on a subconscious level.
And I can see that that would be ironic I guess is a reasonable interpretation. I think from my own intention no.
WCT: I just want to ask, it resonates obviously with you know gay men of a quote/unquote certain age. But how will younger gays
appreciate these characters?
MS: I don’t know. I mean it depends. I again would go back to my contention that what you can identify about this again even if it
is subconsciously is this strength and adversity. And although it is easier to come out now and be out, we’re still fighting things like
Prop 8 and we’re still fighting bullying in school and all that kind of stuff. I still think there is something there to identify even if it is
easier to come out and more acceptable than maybe it had been two generations ago. So the way to answer that I guess would be I
think it would still resonate.
WCT: If Gould had stayed with Big Edie do you think she would have nagged Little Edie to come back? Would things have turned
MS: I think that’s a really good question. I can only offer my opinion and the answer is probably yes. Gould was there for 25
years. But on the other hand – and the reason I said probably and not definitively is that Edie for all of her claims of fame, she
could have made it and could have had it. Did she really have the talent to make it. I think there is evidence on both sides. And I
wanted to present both points of view from the different characters and not have to say this is exactly what happened. I mean life is
so much more complex than that.
WCT: Is there anything else that you can tell us about gays in the real life of the Beales?
MS: Yes. Gould was portrayed in the musical as even more of a dandy I think than we portrayed him. And it was ambiguous in the
film about his sexuality, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But I did find in an interview that Little Edie gave to an author where she said
that, “My mother’s accompanist made a pass at my brother and my brother punched him out.” That had been a scene that I had
written at one point and not for homophobic reasons at all. There was one scene that was cut out actually that we shot where Gould
says that he’ll go into the city to check on Edie. And Big Edie says, “No, no, no, no. The last time you did that you disappeared for
three weeks.” And in another draft of the script there was a reference to his friend Freddie. So I was showing by that that Big Edie
knew about his sexual orientation and whatnot. But again she took – she took what she needed from Gould. Does that make
MS: Edie also later in life, she would often – I mean obviously she had the gay following and so gay guys would befriend her and
she would see them as gentlemen callers. But she knew they were gay. There was one guy who was sick and she said to somebody
else, she says, “It’s AIDS.” And she whispered it. He actually wasn’t sick with AIDS. But the point is, although she pretended to see
him as a gentlemen caller, she knew very much that he wasn’t actually interested in her, but it was part of her fantasy.
WCT: Michael, have you heard from any of Edie’s family or friends about the film?
MS: Yes. Yes. Actually I – the reason I was able to get the journals and the letters and the poetry was what I acquired them from
Big Edie’s grandchildren, Little Edie’s nephew. So her heirs, those are the ones that found the jewels in Edie’s safe deposit box when
she died. And they were I told them what I was doing, and they invited me in and gave me access to all of that. And you know
stayed for part of the process and read earlier drafts of the script. And then about a month ago they saw the final movie, and they
are going to be coming to the L.A. premiere. And they – they’re – they seem to be ecstatic about it and …
WCT: Weren’t you nervous screening it for them?
MS: Yes. Most of them live in San Francisco and one of the brothers lives in Long Island. So he came in. They saw it separately
just because of the geography. But yes. I mean, they – what I told them from the beginning was that I wasn’t going to whitewash
the story. But was I was here to tell their story and talk about how they got there and to celebrate the Edies not ridicule them. And
when they saw the final product they said, “You fulfilled what you said you were going to do. You did celebrate them.” And that was
my goal, was not to ridicule them but to celebrate them. And the family seems very pleased.
WCT: Sure. Is the house that you built for the movie still there?
MS: No. It was only the outside – just the facade. It was a three-story structure with a lot of scaffolding. It was a pretty big set
piece. And then the interiors were on sound stages and all of that did get demolished once we finished. I went up there for
personal reasons in the middle of the winter and during a huge snowstorm. And I thought oh God I wish the facade was still there. I
would love to see it under the snow. But it was gone.