“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.
Early this week I took part in a discourse on the subject of film remakes. My view is below– you can find the rest here.
The act of remaking a film, whether it’s Bonnie and Clyde or Ghost Rider, implies that the original film can be improved upon in some way. While this may be true of a film like Ghost Rider (although actually, I doubt it, because you likely can’t make a silk purse out of a poorly executed Nicholas Cage vehicle), I can’t comprehend the mindset of any filmmaker or producer who watches Miracle on 34th Street and thinks, “Huh, I could do a better job.” What I can comprehend (and deplore) is the mindset of the producer who watches Miracle on 34th Street and thinks, “Do this in color, replace Natalie Wood with that kid from Mrs. Doubtfire and release it on Thanksgiving, and there’ll be a miracle in my bank account.” Thus it is not only the hubris of remaking a classic which bothers me, but also the inherent greed behind it.
I also don’t buy the excuse that many a lazy filmmaker has used to explain why they decided to remake a particular classic—that they’re making a modern, ‘updated’ version of the film, for the current generation. Who gets to decide that a certain classic film needs to be updated? It’s a cinematic masterpiece, not a damn Wikipedia page. And what exactly makes this generation different from any other generation that enjoyed the original animated version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Was Dr. Seuss’s sweet, simple story made more enjoyable by the addition of Jim Carrey, mugging away in frightening greenface? I think not. Is there some reason that this generation won’t appreciate Gene Wilder’s creepy, eccentric Willy Wonka? Give this generation some credit. They may have been raised watching Lizzie McGuire, but that doesn’t mean they’ll mistake Hilary Duff for a real actress.
While I most vocally take issue with remakes of classic films, I also would never condone a film remake of a bad movie like Xanadu—the original was such an epic, transcendently bad film, that a remake would undoubtedly fall short. Still, I wished Xanadu well in its transformation from screen to stage, partly because I was curious to see whether a terrible movie might make a decent musical. In fact, I have nothing against turning a film into a musical, since it involves a conversion into a completely different artistic genre, which requires a lot of hard work and a meaningful vision. It also means that someone watched the movie and said, ‘This would work well as a musical,’ and not, ‘This would work well as another movie, made by me.’
The remake frenzy has hit an all-time low with the currently-in-production remake of the cult documentary film, Grey Gardens. We now have Drew Barrymore, of Charlie’s Angels fame, cast to play Little Edie Beale, the star of Grey Gardens, who was played in the original film by, well, Little Edie Beale. Ladies and gentlemen, what kind of a cosmic joke is it to remake a documentary, and cast actors to play actual people who originally played themselves? In any event, I’m not laughing.
Grey Gardens sacrilege aside, my main issue with film remakes is the idea that even a well-loved classic film, which has earned critical acclaim, gained devoted fans and shaped countless lives through viewings over the years, is still not safe from tampering. This does not appear to happen in the world of fiction. Any fool can read As I Lay Dying and think, ‘I bet a sassy talking pig would really liven this story up’, but their vision will never be realized. For whatever reason, unlike classic films, classic literature is inviolate. I guess I should be grateful for that small favor.