Arts Thursday

What Is It About the Gays and Grey Gardens?

ph2009041500986To hear Drew Barrymore tell it, her biggest fear in portraying Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the manic first cousin to Jackie Onasis who spent the last years of her life with her mother in a ramshackle (that word doesn’t quite describe it right, neither does “dilapidated”, perhaps “ruined and destitute”, works) mansion in the East Hamptons known as Grey Gardens, wasn’t the acting challenge, so much as it was pleasing the gays.

“I can’t tell you the level of fear and sickness I would feel when they would imitate her.  They know her and love her so well — what if I do something that doesn’t feel right with them?”, Barrymore told The L.A. Times, this week.

And her worry is well founded. In bringing the story of the Beales to life in HBO’s Grey Gardens, which premieres this Saturday at 8pm EST, Barrymore is joining Madonna (Evita) and Judy Davis (Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows) in performing the tricky feat of being a gay icon playing another gay icon. But what about Little Edie makes her such an icon? Why do the gays love her so? Let’s count the ways.

A real-life Tennessee Williams character

beales_of_grey_gardens_detailEdie and her mother, Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale are the lock-jawed Mid-Atlantic accented lost cousins of Blanche DuBois.

Surrounded in faded, tarnished, rat-filled glory, the Beales are part of a rich tradition of faded femininity and co-dependency, though usually you only find eccentricity as outre as the Beales in the realm of fiction. Think Hepzibah Pyncheon in Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Not to get all lit crit on your asses, but there’s a whiff of women’s lib (or opression, depending on your point of view) to our obsession with women who, past their “prime” retreat to the realm of the domestic– and let it all go to hell.

In a society that says that a woman’s role is to marry, have kids and take care of the home, flagrantly rejecting all those social imperatives and still remaining independent is a pretty fabulous ‘fuck you’ to the status quo.

The Kennedy connection

I’m from New England, where the Kennedy’s remain royalty to this day, but in 1975, when Albert and David Maysles’s documentary of the Beale’s first had its premiere, Kennedy obsession was still national. While Jackie Onasiss was busy making final preparations for I.M. Pei’s library and museum to JFK when she wasn’t sunning herself on Skorpios, her aunt and first cousin were living in a house that lacked plumbing and was literally collapsing in on itself. Jackie intervened, naturally and provided funds to repair the house– and though the Beale’s got running water, they kept the house just the way they they’d grown accustomed to, as a sort of Adams Family dark mirror of Hyannisport.

The House

ph200904150097014 rooms, 52 cats and a collapsing roof, the mansion known as Grey Gardens is as much a character as either of the Beales. Named by fomer owner and prominent gardner Anna Gilman Hill, the house was named for the gray dunes located at the rear of the property and the building and gardens were designed to reflect the neutral tones of the windswept seashore.

Of course, in the Beales hands, the house fell into disrepair, if not disuse and the overgrown gardens threatened to envelope the house. Little Edie sold the house in 1979 to author and journalist Sally Quinn and her husband, Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post executive editor, on the condition they didn’t tear it down.

True to her word, Quinn restored the house, discovering garden walls long grown over and keeping many pieces of the original furniture, which Edie had left behind. Today, the house is quite livable, but just as decadent.

The Fashion

Marc Jacobs, Todd Oldham , Kylie Minogue and the Olsen Twins have all give credit to Little Edie as an inspiration for their looks. Presaging the rise of boho hipster chic by decades, Little Edie thought nothing of taking an old sweater, wrapping it around her head like a caftan and pinning it with a gold brooch. Throw on some fishnets over your shorts and your ready for the day. While the kids at Misshapes mostly wound up looking like they’d stolen the clothes off a homeless pirate before hitting the club, Edie managed to make her piecemeal costumes look stylish. There’s something wonderfully glamorous about wearing a full-length fur coat while holding a box of cat chow to feed the raccoons, after all.

Watch Edie give some fashion advice:

But enough of why we think you love Grey Gardens. Why don’t you tell us your own reasons in the comments?