Knight at the Movies Archives
HBO serves up a near perfect, fleshed out feature version of the 1975 documentary, Russell Crowe heads up an all star cast
political thriller that's entertaining but message heavy
One of the best movies of this year’s spring season isn’t even in theatres.  It’s on HBO, the cable channel that has continued to be a
home for character dramas that in previous years would have easily been embraced in theatres by movie going audiences.  But in an
age of blockbuster comic book epics and infantile frat boy comedies, dramas, especially ones as complex, compelling and thoughtful
as Michael Suscy’s
Grey Gardens are usually only found in theatres at the end of the year to qualify for awards.  And awards are
what this extension of the beloved documentary deserves.  
Drew Barrymore, playing Little Edie Beale from age 19 to 60, gives what
amounts to a career altering performance while Jessica Lange does a superb turn as her passive aggressive mother Big Edie.  And
the openly gay
Suscy, making his feature debut with the film, is off to a grand start.  It’s an assured, beautiful movie – a perfect
crystallization of the endlessly fascinating story of the unconventional Beales.

The documentary, filmed by brothers Albert and David Maysles captured outspoken, one of a kind Little Edie with her outré fashion
sense and her dotty, controlling mother Big Edie holed up in their decaying East Hampton mansion (the grey gardens of the title)
along with countless cats and raccoons for company far from the jet set life of Jackie Kennedy Onassis their famous relative in all
their wacky, heartbreaking glory – a modern day version of Miss Havisham and her slavish companion Estella.  From its premiere in
1975 through its many other incarnations (countless books, a Tony award winning musical, another documentary, this feature, and
I'm guessing a sitcom and opera yet to come), the material has had a deep connection for gay men who perhaps recognize
themselves in the conflicted but loving story of devoted mother and “different” daughter hanging on to their artistic yearnings in the
face of reduced circumstances.  Both artistic in nature and eccentric to the point of camp, it is Little Edie who resonates most deeply
as she struggles valiantly with a warring desire for her “big chance,” a life of her own away from the passive aggressive mother and a
fear of life away from her and the protective confines of Grey Gardens at the same time.  

Unlike other films that are must viewing for gay men like
All About Eve, Imitation of Life, Valley of the Dolls, and Mommie Dearest, Grey
is the only one that’s taken from real life and despite the laughs it provokes, cuts the deepest.  Each succeeding version has
given us more of the backstory of the two women and now with Suscy’s script (co-written with Patricia Rozema) we finally have the
most complete edition yet.  The film uses the documentary (passages of which are expertly recreated) as a framing device for all
that came before (and some that came after) for a fleshed out portrait of both women.

Born to a life of prestige and privilege, Little Edie aka “Body Beautiful Beale” is a stunner when she makes her society debut in the
late 30s (and with her dark, flowing hair and in the vintage fashions Barrymore has never looked more beautiful).  But she takes her
cues from Big Edie who ignores warnings from her stern husband (played by Ken Howard) to marry her off.  Instead, Big Edie gives
vent to her own desires to be a singer, keeps Gould, a live in dandy (and probable homosexual) pianist (out actor Malcolm Gets) on
call at Grey Gardens to accompany her when the mood strikes, and throws a series of outrageous parties (which by the looks of them
include a lot of gay guests).  Eventually the husband washes his hands of the marriage and after repeated stabs at independence in
New York that include attempts to get a dancing/singing career going and an aborted romance with a married man, and after
repeated pleas from the mother upon Gould’s exit, Little Edie returns to Grey Gardens and mother’s side.  “You gotta go on in life
even when you’ve lost your song” Big Edie tells Little Edie after the father dies and Little Edie’s fate as mother’s companion and
caretaker seems sealed once and for all.

We see a montage of the waning years as the money runs out and poverty sets in – the Edie’s dressed in mourning listening to
Kennedy’s funeral on the radio, the cat food cans piling up, the local housing authority descending on the rotting mansion and
condemning the place, the headlines, and finally, the arrival of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) in a big limo wearing
her signature oversized dark glasses.  Awash with nostalgia over summers spent at Grey Gardens as a child, Jackie promises Aunt
Edie that she “and Ari” will help fix the place up as Little Edie stomps around filled with jealousy.  Though the sequence is enthralling
to contemplate (and has its fun, fly on the wall aspects) it is also the movie’s weakest and is a tad cartoonish.  

musical version gave the story of the two women, tethered together for all time, an added dimension thanks to the its
shimmering, haunted score beautifully sung by Tony winners Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson and a dream-like, fantasy
version of Grey Gardens at its height in its first act.  Likewise, Suscy’s movie offers Barrymore and to a lesser degree Lange, the
benefit of all that complicated backstory only hinted at in the documentary and both turn in bravura performances.  The dustups
between the two join the ranks of other memorable movies with mother-daughter conflicts at their center –
Frances, Postcards from the
, Terms of Endearment, The Glass Menagerie, and yes, when viewed from a certain angle, even Mommie Dearest.  Perhaps
Barrymore's accomplished, technical yet emotionally captivating performance will accomplish for her what her unsung work in the little
Riding in Cars with Boys should have.

Near the conclusion of this version of
Grey Gardens Suscy gives us an imagined but very satisfying mea culpa scene between the two
women, shows us Little Edie in triumph at the documentary’s premiere and even a bit of her nightclub act that played briefly in New
York after Big Edie’s death.  “It’s all in the movie,” a satisfied Big Edie tells a New York Times reporter over the telephone who has
called to get her reaction to the documentary and in that moment she’s also describing this version of
Grey Gardens.  Here at last all
the questions the documentary left hanging in the air, all the before and afters have finally found a home in Suscy’s movie.  And
after decades ensnared in a lurid, hard to explain fascination with Grey Gardens, like Little Edie, I’m finally, peacefully, ready to
move on.


State of Play, a crack team of actors (Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn, and Viola
Davis) headed by Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams enact the story of a major newspaper struggling to survive under the guise of
a political thriller.  The film, directed by
Last King of Scotland’s Kevin Macdonald, is fast, taut, and stuffed with murky plot points.  But
like other fast paced, newspaper centered movies –
All the President’s Men, The Paper, Deadline U.S.A., Absence of Malice, even His Girl
– it’s the thrill of the reporting and putting the pieces together rather than the thrill of the chase that revs up the picture (the
police department, as in most newspaper based movies, are way behind the reporters).

Crowe plays the life experienced reporter who helps along feisty newbie McAdams.  In years past this character would be a plucky
upstart cub reporter, eager to show off her abilities to her cynical superior.  Now, she’s a blogger.  The movie, more than anything
else, is a chance for the filmmakers to put those inexperienced internet amateurs, so enamored of gossip and quick, dirty, career
destroying stories based on innuendo, in their place.   “Look, this is a real story not open to interpretation” he lectures the upstart
blogger early on and as she does the grunt work, learns to track down sources and sees up close the dirty reality of old fashioned
reporting at work we know eventually she’s going to come around and say something like, “This story is too important for readers
not to feel newsprint under their fingers as they read it.”

I have written for newspapers for over 20 years and I ain’t thrilled about the wolf pack mentality and anything goes rules that these
mostly inexperienced, snarky bloggers operate under thanks to the speed and ease of posting on the internet but Macdonald’s
movie really overdoes it, eventually losing its enjoyable thriller aspects as it meanders off into propaganda for the once mighty
newspaper biz.  By the time
State of Play ends – with Crowe filing one of those “weighty” time honored stories (albeit, without an
editor giving it a look see) and we see the time honored newspaper printing process over the end credits – I felt as if the movie was
one giant product endorsement paid for by the National Newspaper Association.
Grey Gardens-State of Play
Expanded Edition of 4-15-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.