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?

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  • Tallskin

    I have to say that I was made to watch this awful film one Saturday night.

    I fidgeted all the way through.

    I found it utterly ghastly and very, very boring.

    I just don’t get it.

    However, my friends loved it!

    My friends and me are all gay – so make of that what you will.

  • Mickah

    @Tallskin: Maybe you didn’t get it because you aren’t that smart. “My friends and me are all gay – so make of that what you will.”
    is should be “My friends and I are all gay – so make of that what you will.” Get it right!

  • ask ena

    Oy, Drew, get over yourself.

    And it’s “ME and my friends IS all gay-so make of that what yous will.”

  • Tallskin

    Yes, Yes, Yes, you bunch of pedants! (Bloody grammar nazis !!)

    But that aside, what did you think of the awful film???

  • Dabq

    I cringed when I read that in the LA Times, that sweeping generalization, although she did say her friends which will be missed by many, that gay men want to dress and talk like Little Edie, not every gay man idolizes unique women or can relate to them no matter how interesting they may be in the thores of mental illness.

  • Chris

    If you haven’t heard the wonderful “Grey Gardens” musical — you should. Christine Ebersole gives one of the great stage performances of any year, as Big Edie in teh first act, and Little Edie in the second act.

  • Al

    I hated the documentary as well as the musical version of Grey Gardens. I am with Tallskin — I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. That having been said, I will tune in to the HBO version because I am trying to find a version that I like because so many people are manic about Grey Gardens that I figure there must be something there that I am missing.

  • Giovanni

    Apart from the sheer camp of Little Edie, I think what fascinates people most (and not just the gays – most of the smart women I know LOVE the documentary) is the ease in which two people who love each other can slip into, and subsequently exist in, such a comfortable form of madness. A folie a deux. Anyone who has ever been in an extremely close relationship with another – be it lover, brother or friend – can relate to how odd that relationship, its languages and idiosyncrasies, would look to the outside world.

    Don’t get me wrong, the Beales are completely bonkers but you can see how it could happen and there is joy that runs parallel to the profound sadness that courses through there lives.

  • Giovanni

    sorry – THEIR.

  • MTB

    Little Edie didn’t exactly spend the last years of her life with her mother in Gray Gardens. Big Edie died in ’77, and Little Edie sold Gray Gardens in ’79. Lil’ Edie died in 2001.

  • kevin (not that one)

    @Tallskin: Of all people, I thought you would have loved it!

    Perhaps you should watch it again. First time I watched it, I only got half-way through. Second time, I made it all the way through and loved it.

  • Marc

    I’m gay and have never heard of this GG.
    I have no desire to watch it on HBO either.
    Not a fan of Drew Barrymore either.

    Not your steretypical gay I guess.
    Oh well.

  • Giovanni

    “Not your steretypical gay I guess”

    Congratulations. You must be so proud.

  • CondeNasty

    I have to admit that I love GG and was a bit worried when I heard that Drew and crew were handling this material. For those that hate GG I guess it just comes down not likeing the genre or the story. I think it struck many people like myself with this sort of Austen, James and Dickensian picture that was moved so far out of period. I know, little Edie should have gotten a job in the steno pool or at the local A&P, but when you are raised in polite society with very strict notions of your role it is sometimes too much to break free from, physically or mentally. It does reek of Miss. Havisham’s mental decadence and has an overtly voyeuristic appeal but that is part of the delight in it all, no?

  • Martha

    After 5 years in Manhattan trying to find true love and stardom, Edie spent approx ages 30 to 60 with her Mother in that house.

    They shut out the world and with little funds for trash removal and home improvements – well you can imagine. Luckily, cousin Jackie had married a Greek tycoon and she helped clean up the house. The Maysles came along after the clean up and filmed them – they paid them $5000 each and never shared the profits as promised – they claim there were none. (ahem)

    I love this story (the documentary and fictionalized musical) because although the women fought, reminisced and sang daily — they made their own entertainment. I respect that. Edie knew her mother wouldn’t budge from that house – and she couldn’t

    There is a happy ending. Little Edie sold the house and had 2 decades of life on her own (age 60 to 80)- traveling to various cities and enjoying her life in Florida and swimming daily.

    It is a minor miracle in this day and age that the house was lovingly restored and wasn’t a tear-down.

    The HBO film looks like an amazing tribute to these ladies and their fans. The artistry of the set and makeup and costume designers, and director/researcher/writer Michael Sucsy – and these two committed lead actresses is a beautiful thing.

  • John

    I enjoy stories, personal stories about quirky, eccentric people who had fascinating lives. I watched Grey Gardens by myself last year before I was even told that “gay men love Grey Gardens”.
    I really did like this documentary and I found myself really liking Big and Little Edie just because they had such a unique and interesting life, the same way I appreciate MANY people who have such a rich and colorful history. It’s not about being gay, it’s about appreciating other types of poeple on this planet, being able to empathize with their situation.
    I loved this story and I can’t wait to see the HBO film because I always wondered what their lives were like prior to their lives as shut-ins.
    Some people care, some people don’t, it isn’t “stereotypical” because I don’t listen to Barbara, Judy, Liza OR Madonna. It has nothing to do with being gay, it has everything to do with being human. Or a certain type of human. Who knows why some people look at the Beales and think they are just sick and crazy and that all of us “stereotypical gays” are just being silly. Who knows why others sit watching the documentary and secretly wish we would have been around in the early 70’s, hearing stories of the crazy women in the run-down house and having the nerve to approach the house, meet them and sit there listening to them go on and on…I do, I wish I could have met them and experienced thier dynamic for myself.
    It is stupid to put the love of this show on gay men though, I know more straight people who like this documentary as well. Like I said, you are either the kind of person who finds other people fascinating, or you aren’t.

  • Aaron

    @Tallskin: Yeah. I don’t understand the fascination with this movie either. Other than a few funny, quotable moments, like the clip above, I thought the movie was boring and depressing.

    Tennessee Williams and Sunset Boulevard, though, I do like, and I can see the similarities. But, still, just couldn’t get into Grey Gardens.

  • Jason in WV

    The only time I had ever heard of Grey Gardens was on a skit that was done on the Big Gay Sketch Show on Logo network. I still don’t get it.

    But I guess it proves that if you’re related to a Kennedy, you can be white trash and people will adore you for it.

  • lambman

    great article, but maybe look up the word caftan before using it in a section about fashion! lol this is a gay blog after all hehehe ;-)

  • rhydderch

    @Giovanni: Awesome Giovanni, I couldn’t have said it better myself. On a related note: Are you single?

  • Scrufff

    i too never liked the documentary. i found the filmmakers to be very cynical and over all the film had this “look how crazy these women are, let’s make fun of them”, which has really bothers me every time i’ve tried to see the docu. that said, i’m looking forward to the HBO movie, which delves into their lives pre Gray Gardens docu which i hope makes them less a freak show and more human.

  • GiGi Simsbrook

    @Martha: Martha — is that TRUE? – “…they paid them $5000 each and never shared the profits as promised – they claim there were none. (ahem).” How do you know this? How horrid. You understand…..

  • mylilpip

    i was fortunate enough to see a screening of the HBO Grey Gardens. I enjoyed it very much. Jessica Lange is STUNNINGLY GREAT in it. Drew Barrymore does a pretty good job in a role that i just assumed she would fail in doing.

    btw, i have loved that documentary for years. i still do. i find these women so fascinating on so many levels.

  • theboyfromipanema

    Mother wanted me to come out in a kimona, we had quite a fight.

  • GiGi Simsbrook

    What about The Marble Faun?

  • Marc

    @ Giovanni,

    Thanks buddy, are you proud of being the bitchy, witty, stereotype?

  • Martha

    @GiGi Simsbrook: TRUE!! granted, the editors were genius for what they created with the footage…but still a profit sharing promise is a promise. Edie became famous and had a few pen pals – but she could’ve used the cash.

    read more here :

  • v-chip

    It’s all true – each of you are right – all of your impressions completely valid! and it’s for this very reason that the film remains so compelling 30 years later. the producer’s commentary found on the dvd menu is rich w/ even more stories & perspectives- FABULOUS!!!! if you already know you love the story, watch it again & listen to all 4 of them reminisce back to those weeks they spent filming…….

  • scott

    Only because we’ve been asked: It took me 4 tries to get through the original documentary. I didn’t enjoy it – I felt like we shouldn’t have seen those things. They were fascinating, for sure. But for all the wrong reasons. When she was boiling corn at her bedside and the cat took a shit behind a painting leaning against her bedroom wall, well, it was right out of John Waters.

  • mb00

    @Giovanni: yeah, no shit…someone give ’em a medal.

  • Mickah

    @ask ena: “ME and my friends IS all gay-so make of that what yous will.” Sorry about my mistake. You IS a smart man. You IS right. So YOUS is right after all.

  • Marc

    I know, Giovanni deserves it.
    He’s just gagging to be up on the podium getting it.

  • BKtop

    OMG, what is so fascinating about these two messy self important people. Life was good, then they f-ed it up, why do we care again?? Because she was related to Jackie-O? Give me a break. Why is it okay to glamorize and make excuses for their delusions? I’ve heard so many people say they were wonderful people, or they had gorgeous souls. Really? They seem like delusional bitches to me.

  • BKtop

    @Jason in WV: I didn’t wanna say it that black and white, but it’s exactly what I was thinking. If it were anyone else, no one would care. I feel sorry for Jackie O.

  • Dennis

    Just have to acknowledge both Lange and Barrymore for brilliant performances…I’m sure they’ll be recognized at Emmy time. Clearly not a film for everyone, but I found it a fascinating, voyeristic glimpse into these women’s lives and psyches. We could have a minor camp classic in the making here…

  • aranhac

    this is for Al and Tallskin and all those that don’t get it: WTF? are you bind, deaf, all of the above or completely deprived of a sense of humor? sense of irony? No? nothing? There’s a Lindsay Lohan movie on the family channel–go watch that then.

  • NewYorkness

    One of my favorite all time movies evah! Saw it 3 times already this week and it only came out last weekend….LOVE IT!

  • J. Clarence

    I really liked the movie. I think one of the reasons some of we gays might be attracted it to it might have to do with the Little Edie’s relationship with her mother as a parallel the relationships of gays have with their parents, particularly their mothers. The tension mixed with love also makes a really great drama.

  • skumshine

    I’m disgusted with HBO, Drew Barrymore and anyone who had anything to do with this travesty. I wish there was a way to “unwatch” things. They stole everything, direct Maysles Brother’s shots were used, direct lines were ripped off like lip synch; Drew Barrymore in Little Edie drag, ruining it for everyone. Couldn’t these morons even come up with their own dialogue? How could this happen? This is not homage. It is unnecessary vanity brought to it’s finest point. Why re-make Grey Gardens? That is essentially what this HBO rip-off is. No new information is shared. Albert and David Maysles’ masterpiece original reduced to a mediocre ego-stroke of a movie. Drew, you petulant little vampire, you need a good talking to.

  • jerrypwjr

    I cant understand how so many viewers and even some official entertainment critics, think of the HBO movie as a “remake” of the 1975 documentary. The movie is narrated from the time the documentary was being filmed so of course they needed to shoot some reenactments using the same duologue. How unrealistic and disappointing would it have been if they changed that?! Right?

    I think the entire production was amazing and I was one of those crazy fans who was expecting a disaster.

  • jerrypwjr

    @Martha: Keep in mind that the documentary cost the Maysles Brothers close to one million dollars to make back in 1975, and the movie only ran in select theaters for a short amount of time. I’m pretty sure that Maysles Films didn’t see any profit from Grey Gardens until 30 years later with the success of GG the Musical. Unfortunately, both women were already dead.

  • Simone

    Drew Barrymore’s acting was absolutely exceptional in this movie. Had it been a movie out in theatre, she would have definitely won an award. I couldn’t take my eyes off this movie from beginning to end. EXCEPTIONAl

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