In April of 2009, HBO Films released Grey Gardens, a $12-million feature directed by Michael Sucsy starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, based on the Maysles’ 1975 documentary. The project had been in the works since 2006, though HBO was not involved at that time. The film won the 2009 Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement. It was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning Outstanding Made for Television Movie, Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie (Jessica Lange), and Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Ken Howard). It was also nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, winning Best Made for Television Movie and Best Actress in a Made for Television Movie (Drew Barrymore). Lange was nominated in the same category, but lost to Barrymore.
In the feature, Lange plays “Big Edie” Beale and Barrymore plays her daughter, Little Edie, with shifts between the characters’ heyday and their age of decline. Other members of this A-list cast include Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie Kennedy Onassis; Daniel Baldwin, who plays Julius Krug, the former secretary of the interior and secret true love of Little Edie; Ken Howard, who plays Big Edie’s husband, Phelan; Malcolm Gets, cast as Big Edie’s accompanist, George Gould Strong; and Arye Gross, who portrays Albert Maysles.
The film spans four decades (from the 1930’s to the 1970’s), which roughly translates to Little Edie’s late teen years to her early sixties. Sucsy carefully researched the project for over four years. The massive creative team that brought the Beales back to life included top-of-the-line hair stylists (Jenny Arbour, Nancy Warren, Rita Pacitto), makeup artists (Vivian Baker, Linda Dowds, Susan Hayward), an award-winning prosthetics designer (Bill Corso), a talented costume designer (Catherine Thomas), dialect coaches (Liz Himmelstein, Howard Samuelson), a singing coach (Bob Garrett), and choreographer (Amy Wright). Not to mention a production designer (Kalina Ivanov) and prop master (Stephen Levitt) with a keen eye for detail.
My wife and I own a growing collection of Grey Gardens-related memorabilia. Our improbable friend, The Baron, kindly sold us a wonderful diamond and gold ring that belonged to the late George Gould Strong. He purchased it directly from the Beales at Grey Gardens- he was a dear friend to the Edies for many years. Kent Bartram, who we came to know through our association with The Baron, introduced us to the propmaster for the new HBO Grey Gardens movie, Stephen Levitt. They wanted to use the ring in the film! This obviously made quite an impression on us: a ring is a very small detail…and they were making a big effort to get the little details right.
Through a number of emails and faxes to the production office, we eventually agreed to loan them the Gould ring. The Baron- half joking, half serious- told us that the “spirits” of Grey Gardens were in the ring; Kent Bartram had already mentioned that the presence of the Beales was reportedly felt on the movie set. We felt that the ring had a place in the film, and hoped that it would give the actor that portrayed Gould an extra boost of confidence (at the time we did not know that Malcolm Gets was cast in that role). We sent the ring off and didn’t see it again for nearly two months.
As a condition of the loan, we asked to visit the set for a few days. They were filming in Canada (it is much cheaper to film a movie in Canada due to less stringent labor laws and attractive government subsidies and tax breaks for filmmakers). We arrived in Toronto on November 7, 2007; coincidentally, it was Little Edie’s birthday. We didn’t know what to expect. The project has generated quite a passionate response on the Internet between those opposed to the making of the movie and those in favor.
They were filming at property adjacent to the Toronto Zoo, and the base camp was set-up like a military fortress. There were trailers lined up everywhere, a huge dining tent, production vehicles traveling to and fro, and walkie-talkies buzzing about (not to mention the nicest port-o-potties I have ever seen…complete with heat and ambient music). We felt like spies infiltrating a top-secret mission. We were warned that it was a “tense” set and were asked, among other things, not to make eye contact with the actors…especially Drew and Jessica, as they were practicing “method acting” and would be in character throughout the duration of the shoot (this was indeed true as both actresses used their Edie voices exclusively). We did our best to honor their requests but, as you might imagine, it was a test of basic human willpower not to be a little awestruck by the whole thing.
A quarter mile beyond the trailers down a narrow, muddy lane we could see the façade of Grey Gardens. We couldn’t believe it; it looked exactly like the Maysles documentary. Vines crawled up the rotten shingles, the shrubs were overgrown, windows were broken, and cat food cans, bottles, and newspapers littered the front porch.
It had an unfathomable intricacy to it: the scale, elevation, and other architectural elements were all accurate. The old black Cadillac sat abandoned out front. This was really like an enormous work of art. There haven’t been many times in my life when I felt like I needed to pinch myself, but it was definitely one of those moments…almost as if we had been transported back in time or were in a parallel universe. This was quite a treat for us, as we attended a cocktail party at the (actual) restored Grey Gardens in East Hampton earlier in the year.
Further up the hill they were shooting interior shots at a 1930’s villa called “Valley Halla.” Word is that the old home is haunted. We were introduced to director, Michael Sucsy, in an upstairs room that served as Big Edie’s original bedroom at Grey Gardens. Unsurprisingly, it matched the photos we have all seen before. The wallpaper was curled and peeling, a tree limb poked through the ceiling, and debris cluttered the living space. Sucsy is a tall, imposing figure with a determined, focused look in his eyes. He shook our hands and graciously welcomed us to the set. He jokingly said, ” You know, you guys must take home a souvenir or two.” He reached out to me and placed something in my hand. It was plaster of Paris “faux” cat poop from Big Edie’s bed.
We were then whisked away to the area of the house dubbed the “video village.” This is where the producers, costumers, dialect coach, and director watch the scenes on monitors as they are filmed. We were given headsets to listen to the dialogue. Barrymore and Lange’s voices were spot-on; you could close your eyes and it was as if the Edies were right there in front of you. But you had every reason to keep them open: the costumes, make-up, and hair were also amazing. We overheard one of the producers discussing the neck chord on Little Edie’s binoculars. “Its not aged enough. It looks too new,” she remarked (another one of those small details). It was bitterly cold in the room; we pulled back the dark drape covering one of the windows and peeked outside. Veils of snow were falling and the delicate flakes were accumulating against the harsh Grey Gardens façade. It was gorgeous- almost like a toxic Norman Rockwell painting.
The set at the East Hampton Train Depot in Uxbridge and the Reno Sweeney set at the Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto were both just as incredible. This was Canada, but you might as well have been hundreds of miles away in the original settings of New York City and Long Island. People that don’t understand Grey Gardens might chalk all of this up to standard Hollywood movie magic; not so, in my opinion. Granted, I am a little biased, but this seemed like much more than a movie- it was really like a grand celebration of the Beales, and the Edies were giving it their blessing.
Thank you to Michael and everyone else for allowing us to witness the making of this truly wonderful film.