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Barrymore matures in movie version of Grey Gardens

MCT Campus

For years, you’ve been crushing on Drew Barrymore. The sugar-and-spice personality, the infectious giggle, the crinkly eyes, the way you want to buy her cotton candy after she kicks tail.

But serious actress? Like the ones who win shiny objects, who do Shakespeare in the Park, who force you to stop downing popcorn because the kernels can’t get past the lump in your throat? It’s never crossed your mind.

It will this week.

Grey Gardens, which premieres Saturday on HBO, qualifies as an event if only because it’s tied to the 1973 documentary by the Maysles brothers about the Beales, an eccentric mother-daughter team who were related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy but chose to live in a rotting, reeking shell of a Camelot in the otherwise pristine Hamptons. The unflinching film, which challenges you to pity or admire the self-delusional pair, has never lost its cult status and continues to be ranked among the most critically acclaimed docs of all time. It also inspired an award-winning musical.

This new version of Gardens offers more insight into Big Edie and Little Edie by taking you back to better times in the 1930s, when their mansion flowed with servants, late-night parties and good spirits, and flashing forward to see how the film forced the pair to confront some ugly truths.

It also will make you re-evaluate everything you thought about Barrymore. Yes, her co-star Jessica Lange is equally wonderful, but we knew that two Oscars ago. This is the younger star’s coming-out party.

“Let’s face it. I’m a thirty something actress who is obviously from the Valley, if you know what I mean,” Barrymore said. “I’m sure the director was wanting to jump off a building when he heard that I was desperate for a meeting. I’ve never laid anything on the line or worked so hard for anything in my life.”

The trick of playing Little Edie is that she must do a dead-on impression of Little Edie (the documentary has too many rabid fans who won’t forgive liberties) while also trying to imagine how she was away from the camera, bawling in private as clumps of hair fell from her beautiful mane, trying to be an independent woman in the not-so-independent ’30s, dreaming of performing in New York, but never being able to move out of the Gardens, perhaps all too aware that she’s a hack.

Barrymore pulls it all off, most notably in the famous scene where her character dances around with a small flag with self-inspired choreography that suggests Andy Warhol’s take on George M. Cohan. She nails the accent, one that wants to sound sophisticated, but comes off as warmed-over Edith Bunker. Most important, she shines in the key dramatic scenes.

When Jackie O. (Jeanne Tripplehorn) comes to pay a visit – and save the family image – Barrymore begins to stroke the icon’s hair, then leans over, practically spitting in her face, insisting that she was this close to marrying Joe Kennedy (they had one dance together at a fraternity party).

“I was the golden girl,” she hisses as they sit outside a house falling apart around them.

For a moment, you could swear you’re watching Bette Davis, not the screaming kid from “E.T.”

Barrymore’s preparation for the role was exhausting. She and Lange slept at Grey Gardens (now owned by former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee). They tolerated nearly unbearable set conditions (“You haven’t lived until you’ve smelled raccoon pee,” Barrymore said). They read so many diary entries that it started to affect their own jottings.

“Weirdly, my journals started to look like Little Edie’s journals,” she said. “I went completely off the deep end. It was awesome.”

The actresses spent four to six hours in makeup (they each age more than 40 years in the course of the 100-minute film), followed by 14-hour work days.

“I was scared all the time,” said Barrymore, who was concerned about living up to the documentary’s legacy. “I felt sick to my stomach. I thought I was going to die.”

Barrymore can stop worrying.

In one of the film’s final scenes, Big Edie takes one more stab at dashing her daughter’s dream. Whether it’s out of love or self-preservation is for you to decide. But we can agree on one thing: Anyone who tries to keep Barrymore from fulfilling her potential deserves a good whiff of raccoon pee.

How to watch
Grey Gardens premiered on HBO Apr. 17 and will re-run regularly if you have access. Otherwise, HBO is sure to release it on DVD soon.