Decaying Preppies

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange in Grey Gardens.

Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange in Grey Gardens

I submit that there’s something wrong with you (either too much status envy or not enough) if you do not respond with a thrill to tales of preppies in distress: the Cheever characters drowning in debt and gin, the endearing Whit Stillman nitwits puzzling out the protocols of the larger world, Serena and Blair engaging in their existential battle on Gossip Girl. At their best, such narratives examine the soiling of whale-print trousers by way of speaking to disappointed expectations. Among the tastiest is Grey Gardens, the 1975 Maysles Bros.’ documentary shot at a decrepit East Hampton, N.Y., mansion. Its residents—a mother-daughter act, faded beauties and disinherited socialites each called Edith Bouvier Beale—were the greatest crazy cat ladies of this, the Cenozoic Era.

Harrowing and hilarious, the documentary gently exploited the home lives of two unbalanced women by shedding light on the structure of codependency and the self-deluding means by which we all adapt ourselves to our misfortunes. It served as the basis for an off-Broadway musical and, owing to the younger Beale’s gaily demented dress sense—”You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape”—an inspiration to any number of fashion folk. Now comes Grey Gardens (HBO, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET), largely enjoyable in spite of being almost entirely superfluous. It stars Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and, in a piece of casting tantamount to an act of cruelty against the actor and audience alike, Jeanne Tripplehorn in the impossible role of their most famous relation, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

We watch the Beales through the Maysles’ gaze, and from some vantage points adjacent to it, and in flashbacks set in the stylish past. All but bookending the docudrama are two scenes at the opulent corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In the beginning, it is 1936, and the ladies are preparing for Little Edie’s coming-out party at the Pierre Hotel. As a thwarted singer, Big Edie delights in any opportunity to perform in any sense, even socially, and she pets herself in the mirror. As a twisted kind of stage mom, she has, as her ex-husband’s says, “infected” her neurotic daughter with dreams of showbiz while ordering her to prepare herself for life as a society wife. “You can have your cake and eat it, too,” Big Edie says. “No, you can’t, mother darling,” is the reply.

Thus, Little Edie, at the moment of her social debut, wants to flit away like a skylark. Ultimately failing in the endeavor, she spends decades living with her mother at Grey Gardens, escaping only at the end of a TV movie, where she braves her way to the premiere of the Maysles’ film and gets tipsy at the sight of herself on-screen at the Paris Theater. Here and throughout, Barrymore out-Edies Little Edie, carrying out not an impersonation but a gleeful expansion on the affectations of a great eccentric. She deserves her inevitable Emmy nomination simply for lending a musical quality to the woman’s accent, which was a stagy elaboration of her Miss Porter’s elocution—a sound so high-class it comes out the other side.

Meanwhile, Lange’s best moments illustrate the fine distinction between a Mother Darling and a Mommie Dearest. Years after the debutante ball, Mr. Beale is underwriting Little Edie’s life in Manhattan, where she secretly pursues dreams of Broadway and Hollywood. Big Edie, underminer that she is, tips off her ex-husband that his daughter had taken a man back to her room at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. He collects the girl and escorts her back to Long Island. There, deposited into her mother’s clutches, Little Edie snubs him on the platform, failing to say goodbye as he stands there pleading as much as his granitelike propriety will allow. Deliciously, Lange’s Big Edie bids him farewell with a triumphant smirk, gratified to have him feel the sting of renunciation. Then we cut to a scene of the two ladies entering the house: Big Edie mounts the stairs with a smug skip, elated at the prospect of forever squeezing her baby in her enabling arms.

A different kind of film would signal Big Edie’s irretrievable descent into battiness with a scene of her drinking before cocktail hour. Here, the pivotal moment comes when she switches from a highball glass to a pickling jar. Soon enough, the money runs out and the madness gets thicker. Big Edie rejects the idea of moving someplace cheaper. This is her warren and her bunker. “It’s the only place where I feel completely myself,” she says at one point, necessarily oblivious to the fact that feeling completely herself was her problem. Soon enough, it is her sty, with the house falling into a spectacular squalor. The New York Times’ 2002 obit for Little Edie claims that, when inspectors from the Suffolk County Health Department raided the house in 1971, they “discovered that it violated every known building regulation.” But this cannot be exactly true. After all, the house was for the most part still standing.

If there is a meaning to this adaptation, it lies in the filmmaker’s gentle suggestion of the Beales’ martyrdom—though for what cause the ladies suffered remains unclear. There is certainly a feminist angle, with Mr. Beale suggesting secretarial work as the only suitable profession for his daughter to take up while waiting to marry well. Then there is the matter of thwarted dreams: Each Edie was a showgirl trapped in the station of a lady who exists to lunch. But really the great bad luck of the Edith Bouvier Beales was to arrive before their time, to antecede reality television.