“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, you know what I mean?”
–Edith Bouvier Beale
I was first introduced to Grey Gardens by a friend of mine who had seen it dozens of times and quoted it often. He said I absolutely had to see it, that it would change my life. While it was difficult for me to watch all the way through the first time, and I still have trouble getting through the whole thing whenever I watch it again, Grey Gardens is unforgettable. I think everyone should see it.
When the musical came out, I was oh so excited. My parents got me tickets to it for my birthday, and I highly enjoyed it (although the first act, which is not based on the movie, I could take or leave). The flamboyant and yet painfully intimate documentary film was well suited for the adaptation to Broadway musical. The addition of musical numbers did not seem glaringly out of place, since the documentary itself was alive with music and dance. The portrayal of the Beales on the stage was thoughtful and nuanced; loving yet honest.
Given that the Broadway musical was such a smash hit, I should not be surprised that a film remake of the original documentary, as was recently shown on HBO, soon followed. Truthfully, I can almost understand the desire to remake Grey Gardens; a work of such brilliance is sure to inspire its share of devoted followers, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that.
While I have come out against film remakes in the past, I don’t doubt that at least some fraction of them are made not with profit in mind but out of love and devotion to the original. When you remake a fictional film, even if it’s based on true events, you are in effect re-telling a story that was originally told using actors and a set and a script. Your version of Bonnie & Clyde may underline different themes and play up ideas that were less obvious in the original, and that’s fine. Your take is different, but it is recreated under the same circumstances as the original film, and in that regard, your version is just as legitimate.
Remaking a documentary, on the other hand, is not only ludicrous, but also pointless. How can you play up ideas that weren’t sufficiently developed during the original documentary of Grey Gardens, when all of the ideas and themes that existed in the original were introduced by the actual people themselves? Edie Beale and her mother were not actresses. They were performers, certainly, but they were not playing roles. They were being themselves-their own glorious, crazy, tragic selves. Why on earth would I ever want to watch two actresses attempt to portray the Beales, when I can watch the actual Beales? What aspects of their incredible lives could ever be better illuminated by an actor’s mimicry?
Both Little Edie and Big Edie are dead now, and both died in poverty, having seen little financial reward for starring in an incredibly popular documentary that laid bare the trappings of their astonishing lives. In one sense, I understand that a remake of Grey Gardens is supposed to serve as an homage to the Beales. But in a more real sense, I see it as a ghastly exploitation; replicating a documentary that itself bordered on exploitation, no matter how iconic and successful it became in the end. Let these two fearless, haunting women have the last word; see the original Grey Gardens, and skip the remake. As a devoted fan of the original, I plan to.
April 27, 2009 at 1:20 pm
But don’t you think applying rules to things that can and cannot be reinterpreted is dangerous? What about something like Mean Girls, based on a non-fiction book? Or the Laramie Project? I think your points are valid, and I don’t think a reinterpretation of Grey Gardens is necessary, but I don’t think it’s more exploitative (is that a word) than anything else “based on a true story”.
April 27, 2009 at 1:40 pm
That is a good point— possibly ‘exploit’ is not an accurate word here—I mostly want to express how creepy it is to me for actresses to mimic actual people. In terms of Mean Girls, or other film adaptations of books, it seems to me that when the original work is a novel, even if it’s non-fiction, a film based on that novel is at least reinterpreting it in a completely different medium—this is why the Broadway musical didn’t really bother me. But to reinterpret a documentary as a film seems pointless; it’s too close to the original medium to be able to really add anything to it. Perhaps it’s not exploitation since the Beales are both dead, and perhaps remaking a documentary that could arguably be viewed as exploitative is not in itself exploitative—but I think it walks a fine line that leaves me feeling uncomfortable.