The line between documentary reenactment and fiction in Grey Gardens

One of the most ironic turns in documentary creation occurred when one of the most iconic cinéma vérité films, “Grey Gardens” (1975) by the Maysles brothers, inspired and informed “Grey Gardens” the movie (2009), a meticulously reenacted docudrama directed by Michael Sucsy.

Sucsy’s “Grey Gardens,” made for HBO in 2009 starred Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. In a word, the film achieved classic status in its own right. It won two Golden Globes, an Emmy for best TV movie and another 28 wins and 30 nominations across screen craft categories from best screenplay to excellence in production design.

The films

Both films are intimate character studies of Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and first cousin, whose private behavior is very much on public display. Still, at its heart “Grey Gardens” is a mother-daughter love story. Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier-Beale, two New England aristocrats from the Hamptons, have stepped out of high society to lead reclusive lives. The question that both films ask is, how did two Park Avenue debutants end up living in squalor? More specifically, how did they find themselves living in a decaying Long Island mansion with six cats and dwindling means?

For fans and students of docudramas, “Gardens” the movie serves as a bona fide film school. The feature-length film is a course of study in harnessing the cinematic arts to craft a reality-based screen story.

In the audio commentary to their film, Sucsy with producer-collaborators Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz as well as the actors unpack the anatomy of their project. Although crafted antithetically to the Maysles’ ‘whatever happens, happens’ shooting style, “Grey Gardens” the movie depends entirely on the 1975 film for its inspiration and much of its execution.

But why? Why make a feature-length documentary reenactment of a vérité cult classic? It turns out the reasons are pretty much the same reasons the Maysles made their film in the first place. Here’s the backstory.

The Maysles documentary

In 1970, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy’s sister (Big Edie’s niece) approached Albert and David Maysles to make a film about her childhood in the Hamptons. Albert Maysles remembers Radziwill handing them a shot list. Item #34 on the list he recalls was “my very eccentric aunt and cousin.”

Grey Gardens (1975)

They shot for about two weeks all over the Hamptons. This included an hour of footage showing the two Edies fending off local health officials threatening to evict them. Thus, Radziwill soon abandoned the film project.

The Maysles, however, would include the newspaper clippings from the day in the introduction to their doc, for which they approached the Beales independently years later. By then mother and daughter had gained considerable notoriety. Tabloid headlines of the era shouted: “Mother and daughter told to clean house or get out”, and “Jackie cleans up East Hampton mansion for kin.”

Grey Gardens (1975)

“There was so much mystery attached to it,” said Maysles. “We wanted to get behind that mystery. How did this happen, how did that mansion become so dilapidated? We had to do that by watching, listening, by paying attention.”

Sucsy’s “Grey Gardens” reenactment

After watching the Maysles film many times, Sucsy says he thought there was a bigger movie in the clues the documentary provided. To kick-start his research, he made a list of questions that weren’t answered in the film. Every question answered provided one more potential storyline to include in his screenplay.

Every question answered provided one more potential storyline to include in his screenplay.

The Maysles exploration of the private lives of the Beales took place entirely in the here and now. The doc was shot over six weeks in 1974. But Sucsy’s feature film reconstructs what happened in the Beales’ lives during the 30s 50s & 60s and beyond. It also involves several other characters including Big Edie’s husband and Little Edie’s married man with whom she had an affair. Jackie Kennedy-Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and the Maysles brothers (Ayre Gross & Louis Ferreira) also play key roles in “Grey Gardens” the movie.

For the script, Sucsy says he used primary sources including letters and journals kept by Little Edie to flesh out the story. He interviewed family members and friends, some of whom also provided journals, letters and poetry. Sucsy drew from all of these sources to develop the screenplay — and even some of the dialogue.

Playing the part

Lange says that on set the Maysles film became an obsession for her. She would watch certain scenes from the doc every day to get Big Edie’s voice and mannerisms down. This allowed her to slide deeper into the character.

Barrymore stayed in character on and off-set during the entire three months of shooting, mostly on a sound stage in Toronto. She blocked out the trappings of the outside world, no cellphone and no communication with friends. When she did write, she used a typewriter.

Grey Gardens (2009)

She said she wanted to put herself into “the same cage as Little Edie in order to understand her.” The crew referred to her as Edie until the final day of shooting when she pulled off her prosthetic make-up and introduced herself as Drew Barrymore.

Extensive use of prosthetic make-up helped achieve the look of the two Edies as they appeared in the documentary. For believability, both Lange and Barrymore are wearing fake noses, fake teeth, wrinkles and wigs in Sucsy’s movie. The film went on to score an Outstanding Makeup Emmy in 2009.

The third lead

Grey Gardens itself is the third character in the film. The deteriorating 28-room crumbling family mansion received a lot of attention from the art department and the director.

Grey Gardens (2009)

“The façade of the house we recreated using the original blueprints of the house and photographs,” says Sucsy, who worked with Sketch-up the 3-D modeling tool to reconstruct the house virtually. “This was useful for identifying which rooms were needed for production, what needed to be built and what needed to be fly-wall (movable) and where we could put the camera, places where the documentarians wouldn’t have been able to go.”

Production style

British DOP Mike Eeley (“Touching the Void”) worked from reference photos to recreate that special light of the Hamptons. As the movie progresses, the characters deal with diminishing resources. Eeley changes the lighting to match their circumstance of having to save electricity. Later in the film, the only light source available is daylight. The shadows become darker, the setting and overall tone of subsequent interiors become moodier.

The filmmakers diligently matched shooting styles to the different eras depicted in the film. “In the 30s the camera work was much more structured, steady and more formal,” says Sucsy. As the film gets closer to the 70s, Eeley’s shooting became looser. The camera came off the tripod and some scenes were shot on a sandbag. This helped make shots “feel rougher,” according to Sucsy. The goal was “to give you a sense that there’s a different kind of filmmaking in this section of the movie.”

Documentary vs. movie

In the documentary, Little Edie and her mother frequently engage with the filmmakers while the camera is rolling. Maysles says this disqualifies “Grey Gardens” as pure fly-on-the-wall documentary making.

“You have to be able to use your sensibilities so that in that kind of interaction you are able to get people to be themselves,” said Maysles. The non-judgmental filmmakers secured the trust of their subjects who in turn reward the Maysles by being “entirely themselves. Never turned off or on by the camera.”

Sucsy exploits these exchanges between subjects and filmmakers. “Grey Gardens” the movie references the point of view of Al Maysles’ documentary camera, including a processed grainy film-look. “In the documentary, you don’t see anything other than the camera’s pov, there’s only one camera,” says Sucsy.

However, when reenacting the documentary segments for his film, he says he wasn’t always replicating exactly what the Maysles shot. Instead, he included information from outside of their 16mm frame. “You’re using different angles, over shoulder etc. It adds a different meaning.”

At times, the movie faithfully recreates scenes from the documentary. However, “there were some that we re-appropriated and combined and reset in different places to give the feeling of the documentary,” Sucsy explains.

An appropriate ending

When the Maysles were in the completion stage of their film they brought a portable projector to “Grey Gardens” and showed a cut to the Beales. The filmmakers recorded audio of Big and Little Edie watching and reacting to seeing themselves up on the screen. Sucsy used a clip from that audio to script one of the last scenes in the film:

After the screening, Little Edie paces for a moment, then looks both filmmakers in the eyes and said, “David…Al … it’s an artistic smash.”

Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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