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'Grey' tell: Talking with Drew Barrymore & Michael Suscy
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Richard Knight, Jr.

This article shared 3788 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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The endless fascination that the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens has provoked in audiences—especially gay ones—has given rise to yet another version of the story of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy, respectively, who descended from the top of the social stratum and ended up living in squalor in their East Hampton mansion with numerous cats and raccoons for company. Following on the heels of the Tony Award-winning musical version, out writer-director Michael Suscy makes his feature debut with his marvelous adaptation of the story, also named Grey Gardens, for HBO ( premiering Saturday, April 18, and re-playing throughout the month ) . Suscy, who also served as the movie's executive producer, spent years combing through archival material provided by Little Edie's surviving relatives and then got his dream cast to act out his story ( co-written with Patricia Rozema ) .

Drew Barrymore, in a career-changing performance, ages from 19 to 60 as Little Edie, the beautiful daughter who dreams of escaping the clutches of her mother, Big Edie ( a superb Jessica Lange ) , and the safe confines of Grey Gardens for a career as a dancer and singer in New York. The cast also includes out actor Malcolm Gets as Big Edie's onetime live-in, most likely gay piano accompanist Gould and Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose intervention kept the Beales from being evicted from Grey Gardens when it fell into disrepair. Unlike the documentary, the sumptuously produced film fills in the early lives of the Edies, allowing a glimpse into the wealth and privilege that once surrounded them. The result is a film that is marvelous, heartbreaking and fascinating. Windy City Times participated in a joint interview with Drew Barrymore and Michael Suscy who both enthusiastically discussed the film.

Windy City Times: How did you avoid making Grey Gardens kind of just straight-on campy?

Michael Suscy: I think that the real answer is that I didn't see it that way. I didn't interpret it that way. I am aware of those aspects of it. I mean, I think it's wacky enough that it speaks for itself.

WCT: Drew, would you purposely crack up? Like try and get Jessica to crack up and do some impromptu Bouvier?

MS: Drew stayed in character throughout shooting. So whenever they were saying anything that wasn't a scripted line, she was still behaving like Little Edie. So I think that naturally led to that kind of reverie on set.

Drew Barrymore: When we were eating the ice cream also, and we had these fake teeth in and we are like eating chalky chocolate-y ice cream out of a box and we were sitting on the bed with our furs and our bean-bag boobs and our prosthetics and our fat suits and everything, and Jackie was knocking at the bottom of the door … we could barely do the scene, we were laughing so hard.

MS: I forgot about that. Yes, and there was one day when Drew laughed and her fake teeth popped out.

DB: Oh, my God. That is true. I was playing with them in my mouth and I laughed and it spit out the false teeth.

WCT: It sounds like this role was very much a career-changing or life-changing role for you.

DB: Oh, thank you. I really got to do what I wanted to do from the experience—to go so deep into something like never I have done before. So it already has changed my life that I was given that privilege and trusted with that responsibility. And then the discipline of what I did to be as authentic to her as I possibly could was definitely something that made me like mentally unstable, but I now know that I am capable of that level of discipline.

WCT: Drew, what kind of preparation did you do to get her mannerisms, the walk and everything?

DB: I love doing her older walk. She had such a particular shuffle with her hips, her knees and her legs. And I had the fat suit on so that also always helps me. And I studied—I started studying for a year a couple hours a day, five days a week, for the dialect. I knew this wasn't like a —yes— like three weeks before I should start. And then the cadence in her voice, the ups and the downs, the highs and lows. The child-like mannerisms, the very calm 56-year-old woman, the angry little girl that is inside that 56-year-old woman. Also, Katherine Hepburn became a huge support for me because I would watch her in Alice Adams at 18 and then in Bringing Up Baby in her 30s and then Adam's Rib in her 50s. And that helped me understand how one person can have a voice that was so famous that transcends throughout time—and it's realistic to the person at 18.

MS: The other thing that we did was [ work ] on the prosthetics for over the course of the year. And Drew sat for at least three or four makeup sessions.

DB: It was great, too, because we kept changing the prosthetics according to my face to make it look more like hers. Everybody cared about every detail. We redid the teeth, like, seven times.

MS: Yes. And in a world that is completely—and a community frankly, that is completely caught up in beauty—both Jessica and Drew were constantly asking to look fatter and older and baggier and frecklier. And that is practically unheard of these days.

WCT: I am just wondering about the end quote from Little Edie that we see at the end of the movie: —My mother gave me a completely priceless life.— Was that meant to be somewhat ironic?

DB: Well, I always believed that Edie is a walking contradiction. That was sort of my big thing with Michael when I first met him—that she is a recluse—but she is a born entertainer. She bitched and moaned about getting out of this house every day of her life, yet the door wasn't locked. She had aspirations to be out there and yet fears held her back. She wanted nothing but love but rejected it at the same time. But I just appreciate that that is her quote. I think it is fabulous. I think it's fantastic. I feel like she meant it. And also it's saying, —I wasn't always unhappy.—

WCT: If Gould had stayed with Big Edie do you think she would have nagged Little Edie to come back? Would things have turned out differently?

MS: I think that's a really good question. I can only offer my opinion and the answer is probably yes. Gould was there for 25 years. But on the other hand—and the reason I said probably and not definitively is that Edie for all of her claims of fame, did she really have the talent to make it? I think there is evidence on both sides. And I wanted to present both points of view from the different characters and not have to say this is exactly what happened.

WCT: Is there anything else that you can tell us about gays in the real life of the Beales?

MS: Yes. Gould was portrayed in the musical as even more of a dandy I think than we portrayed him. And it was ambiguous in the film about his sexuality, maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But I did find in an interview that Little Edie gave where she said, —My mother's accompanist made a pass at my brother and my brother punched him out.— That had been a scene that I had written at one point and not for homophobic reasons at all. There was another scene that was cut out actually that we shot where Gould says that he'll go into the city to check on Edie. And Big Edie says, —No, no, no, no. The last time you did that you disappeared for three weeks.— And in another draft of the script there was a reference to his friend Freddie. So I was showing by that that Big Edie knew about his sexual orientation and whatnot. But again she took what she needed from Gould.

WCT: Is the house that you built for the movie still there?

MS: No. It was only the outside—just the facade. It was a three-story structure with a lot of scaffolding. It was a pretty big set piece. And then the interiors were on sound stages and all of that did get demolished once we finished. I went up there for personal reasons in the middle of the winter and during a huge snowstorm. And I thought, Oh God I wish the facade was still there. I would love to see it under the snow.— But it was gone.

This article shared 3788 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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