Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Drew Barrymore's Revelatory Performance: Grey Gardens

Maybe Drew Barrymore has her grandfather's (John Barrymore) acting chops after all. Over the years, I've avoided watching most of what she's appeared in because it was either lame rom-coms or outright trash such as the god-awful Charlie's Angels movies. So, when I first heard she would star as Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beal in a fictionalized version of the Grey Gardens documentary by David and Al Maysles, I cringed.

Grey Gardens (1976), the doc, tells the story of 'Little Edie' and her mother 'Big Edie', relatives of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis who lived as recluses in a decaying, filth-filled mansion in the Hamptons. Some called the documentary voyeuristic, while others were drawn to these two eccentrics as they lived for and off each other. Leonard Malton, in his yearly Movie And Video Guide (1993 edition) liked the film, but gently condemned it as shallow because he said we learned nothing about their lives prior to their retreat into hermitage. Grey Gardens (2009) the HBO-produced docudrama addresses these shortcomings.

It is not uncommon for weak, needy people to successfully prey on the strong, breaking down their defenses and exploiting their insecurities and eventually bending them to their will. With the use of well-positioned flashbacks, we begin to understand how Big Edie managed to slowly but surely bend Little Edie to her will. Abandoned by her husband and lover, Big Edie latched onto her daughter, trapped her in her needful embrace and never let her go. Eventually, the noose became so tight, Little Edie came to forget she was trapped.

In some ways, this is the dark-as-coal version of It's A Wonderful Life. Just like George Bailey wanted nothing more than to escape the stultifying Bedford Falls, Little Edie wished for nothing more than to escape her mother and the Hamptons and blossom in New York. Neither ever achieved their stated goals.

This film works so well because of Barrymore's scary good turn as Little Edie. Jessica Lange as Big Edie is also excellent, but because we've come to expect nothing less from this talented actress, it's not as surprising. Barrymore doesn't just mimic Little Edie, she inhabits her body and soul. Sure, she has the accent down (a booming, odd sort of combination of patrician aristocracy and New Yawker), but it is the way she moves, the look of deep regret or eye-rolling irritation she gives the Maysles as she listens to her mother tell another whopper that really shows an actress working at the very top of her game. It is not surprising that she won a 2010 Golden Globe award for this performance.

Ironically, you really don't know the depths she went to until after the film is over and you watch the Special Feature "making of" doc. The featurette includes footage of the real documentary intercut with recreations from the docudrama. On more than one occasion I had to do a quick rewind to see if I was watching the real 'Little Edie' or Drew Barrymore doing 'Little Edie'. On more than one occasion, I got it wrong.

It is for this reason that I have to always remember to be careful about dismissing a performer or director if their previous work did nothing for me. At any time, they might be able to do something damn good, just as Barrymore does here. Want another example? For years, I've thought Quentin Tarantino was completely overrated, and then he sprang Inglourious Basterds on me. My mantra for 2010: Always keep an open mind.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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