March 5, 2006

"Grey Gardens," the musical.

I've already blogged about my great love for the film "Grey Gardens." Here, I respond to the charge that I've phonied up the list of favorite films in my Blogger profile as a way to make myself appear more sexually attractive. And here I describe an at-home triple feature where I inflict it on friends, including the one who made the aforementioned charge.

Now, there's an Off-Broadway musical based on the film. Here's the NYT piece on it, which includes a photograph that should hearten the film's devotees:

That really captures the mood well, doesn't it? From the article:
"Grey Gardens" also developed a following among people, gay men especially, who responded both to the implicit campiness of the film — two faded old biddies, preening and bickering and singing Cole Porter tunes in lah-dee-dah accents — and to the women's eccentricity, originality and uncompromising independence. The two Edies, a cross between the Collyer brothers and Miss Havisham and Estella, are a bizarre version of the American family but ultimately an affectionate and mutually sustaining one. Their admirers include numbers of men who love to watch the film while dressed in drag and reciting the dialogue from memory.
Dressed in drag? Well, presumaby you are wearing the skirt on you head, right? It's the perfect costume for the day.
Even before seeing the musical, some of the diehards are charging sacrilege. Scott Frankel, who was the prime mover behind this production of "Grey Gardens" and wrote the music for it, has been accosted on the street by outraged fans of the film saying "How could you!" Doug Wright, who wrote the book for the musical, said recently: "It's like adapting the Bible. You do feel a certain responsibility."...

... Mr. Frankel called in Mr. Wright, a Yale classmate and the author of both the movie "Quills" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "I Am My Own Wife." Mr. Wright told him he was nuts. "I said I adored the movie, but what you have in mind can't be done," he recalled. "How can you have a two-act musical where nothing happens? It wasn't until they came to me with the tablecloth that I realized there could be a narrative shape."

The tablecloth — a paper one, from Ernie's restaurant on the Upper West Side — was the handiwork of Mr. Frankel and Mr. Korie, who wrote the libretto for "Harvey Milk," among other operas, and who was starting to think about lyrics for the show. It had two boxes drawn on it, one labeled 1941 and the other 1973, depicting the solution the two men had arrived over dinner in the fall of 2003: to create an entire first act set in the past, when Big Edie was in her prime and Little Edie was known in debutante circles as Body Beautiful Beale, and a second set in the actual period of the film.

"We had been playing with the idea of flashbacks, but that just seemed like 'Follies,' " Mr. Frankel recalled. "But then we began thinking about what really happened. What if we saw what life was like at Grey Gardens before it became this hothouse terrarium?"
It will be interesting to see how that works. One of the great charms of the film is the way you discover the past, at surprising little moments, like when the camera shows a beautiful oil portrait of Big Edie, who is laughing about how the cat is "enjoying" itself by pissing behind it.

Do we understand from the musical any more than from the film what brought these women to this condition?
"I kept trying to get a clinical fix on them," Mr. Frankel said, "and my allegiances kept shifting. At first I thought Big Edie was a narcissist who created a sort of bohemian salon for herself at Grey Gardens, and didn't equip her daughter to live an independent, creative life. But then I began to wonder whether Little Edie was ever equipped to deal with the world. Was she mentally compromised? She knows what she should do, and yet she doesn't seem able to make it happen. So maybe Big Edie was in fact providing a safe haven for a daughter who couldn't manage in the world. We kept looking at it as an 'or' proposition, but through talking to Albert we came to see it as an 'and' proposition."
Have you figured it out?

Here's the piece NPR ran this morning, which gives you a chance to hear some of the music. The photo at the NPR page, unlike the photo above, is worrisome for a "Grey Gardens" devotee.

Oh, and apparently, we're about to get a "Grey Gardens" movie too. With Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange!


J. Cricket said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
chuck b. said...

Grey Gardens has really crossed into the mainstream. It's kinda sad when you're favorite cult flick becomes so popular it gets referenced it on Gilmore Girls. From this point on, I'm no better than anyone else. )sigh(

chuck b. said...

Did Little Edie say "perfect costume" for the day? I think she said "best outfit". But I could be wrong.

Ann Althouse said...

You know, I remembered it as "outfit" too, and had that written, but then I checked a website. I should check the DVD.

Ann Althouse said...

Based on a Google search of the various possibilities, I think the answer is "best costume."

chuck b. said...

Well, I like costume! So, that's good. I know people who can recite entire chunks of dialog from that movie by heart, but I was never one of them. Just a few parts settled in my memory, and even those have apparently faded.

Palladian said...

There already is a movie of "Grey Gardens". It's called "Grey Gardens", for Christ's sake! But hey, Hollywood decided long ago that milking and milking a dead horse was much easier and cheaper than actually writing and producing anything new. What future dramatizations of documentary movies will Hollywood produce? I heard they tried to fictionalize "Fahrenheit 911" but found that their work was already largely done for them.

Maybe "Triumph of the Will". Or "Crumb". What about dramatizations of concert films. Is there a dramatized "Woodstock" movie? Maybe it can be tweaked into a horror/suspense flick. I can see the poster "WOODSTOCK: MOVE AWAY FROM THE TOWERS. RATED R"

chuck b. said...

Did you see this? Link from Metafilter. It's short. Here's the whole thing.

One afternoon last year, a woman got into a taxi lugging a video camera and a tripod. The driver, a stocky middle-aged man with close-cropped hair and a goatee, asked her if she was in the film business and if she had ever seen the movie “Grey Gardens.” She said yes. “Well,” the driver said. “I’m the Marble Faun.” The woman gasped and told him, “Albert Maysles has been looking for you for years.”

“Grey Gardens,” Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 cult documentary, chronicled the lives of the eccentric socialite Edith Bouvier Beale (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt) and her middle-aged daughter, Little Edie, who lived together in gothic isolation in a decaying, cat-ridden East Hampton mansion. As aficionados will recall, the only regular visitor to the Beales’ self-contained world was a sensitive teen-age handyman, with delicate features, big hair, and a Brooklyn accent. Little Edie nicknamed him the Marble Faun, after the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, but his given name was Jerry Torre. No one had heard from him since 1979.

Not long after the encounter in the taxi, Albert Maysles (David died in 1987) and his long-lost subject were reunited. Torre learned not only that he had become a camp icon but that he was about to be portrayed onstage in a musical based on the film. (It opens next month, at Playwrights Horizons.)

Torre grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a sanitation worker and a school custodian. (He claims that Joe Torre, the manager of the Yankees, is a distant cousin.) He ran away when he was sixteen and found his way to East Hampton, where he worked as a gardener on an estate next door to Grey Gardens. One afternoon, Torre decided to explore the seemingly abandoned property. “I had no idea that anybody actually lived there—there were cobwebs all over the vestibule,” he recalled. “But I knock on the door, and, sure enough, Edie comes walking down the stairs in one of her turbans. Frankly, I shit a brick, because I thought she was going to report me for trespassing. Instead, she embraced me, stroked my hair, and said, ‘Oh, my God—the Marble Faun has arrived.’ I had no idea what she meant, but I was enthralled.”

Despite the moldering furniture and the raccoons that fell through holes in the ceiling, Torre found a second home at Grey Gardens. He also found a second mother in Mrs. Beale, who, he recalled, used to lecture him on the importance of a balanced diet and then serve him liver pâté and undercooked corn. Torre says they became close after he persuaded E.M.S. workers not to take her to a hospital, during a raid by the health department. He remembers his relationship with Edie as more of a “sibling rivalry.” He said, “The Beales showed me a life where you could be yourself, explore, take chances. Who was I to ask them why they chose to live in such filth and squalor?”

In the film, Mrs. Beale says, “Jerry’s out every night with a different girl.” In fact, Torre’s life outside Grey Gardens centered on local gay night spots, such as the Attic. And he often drove into the city to spend evenings cruising bathhouses in a towel (he says he was voted Mr. Club Baths 1977) or dancing in his jockstrap on the bar at the Anvil.

Though she didn’t appear in the Maysleses’ movie, Jacqueline Onassis turns up in the musical, as the young Jackie Bouvier. Torre recalls meeting Onassis when she visited Grey Gardens. He says that she used to call the house occasionally, to check on her aunt and cousin, and that she once asked him to take her out clubbing. He remembers bringing her to the Anvil, where they watched a fire-eating drag contortionist perform. Afterward, Onassis’s driver took them back to her building, where she invited Torre up for a drink. “I said no thanks,” he said. “I went back to the Anvil.”

After “Grey Gardens” was released, Torre says, he helped Edie out with a cabaret act that she had put together. But after Mrs. Beale died, in 1977, Edie sold the house, eventually moving to Florida (she died in 2002), and they lost touch. Torre took a job with the Saudi royal family, tending a two-and-a-half-acre tropical garden in Riyadh. He had his own villa, with a pool and a personal chef, but he found life lonely.

After returning to the States, he moved to the East Village and opened an art-moving company, called AAA All-Boro Trucking. He ran the business with his boyfriend, who died in the late eighties. Despondent, Torre went into seclusion. He eventually moved to Sunnyside, Queens, where he lives now. He drives a taxi three days a week, and he spends most of his free time chatting on the Internet, working out, and carving nude sculptures out of marble. He recently bought a copy of “The Marble Faun” on Amazon, but he hasn’t got around to reading it yet.

The other day Torre attended a preview of “Grey Gardens,” the musical, in which the role of Jerry is played by a square-jawed young actor named Matt Cavenaugh. He wears a Newsday sweatshirt and a painter’s cap, as Torre did as a teen-ager, and what looks like a Beatles wig. Torre’s eyes teared up several times during the show, particularly when, after a song called “Jerry Likes My Corn,” the stage Jerry said, “You be good now, Mrs. Beale—you take care of yourself.”

“It’s actually a relief to see somebody playing me for a change,” Torre said later. “He portrayed me as a little dimwitted, but otherwise it was pretty accurate.” He added, “The depiction of Jerry’s hair—that wig he sported—it didn’t quite work.”

scot said...

Your friend's comment regarding the movies in your profile is interesting- as when I first came across your blog, I was intriguyed by the films on your list and immediately began constructing an idea of what sort of person would like ten such eclectic films...I can't speak for the intentionality of the list, but I can attest that your list made you more interesting to this former film scholar...