The Cult of Grey Gardens

David Colman peels back the layers of one of camp's most iconic stories to uncover the film's strange heart and why it's still beating.

BY David Colman

March 04 2009 12:00 AM ET

Like most of the best things in life -- opera, wine, meditation, anal sex -- the weird world of Grey Gardens is an acquired taste. And as with many acquired tastes, the first sip makes quite an impression. When I first saw the film in college, my reactions were shock and dismay at what felt like exploitative invasion of privacy, a mockery of two sadly deranged women.

"I tell people, 'You may not like it the first time,'È‚f;" explains Michael Sucsy about the 1975 Maysles Brothers documentary. Over the past few years, Sucsy has researched, written, and directed a new dramatic film, also titled Grey Gardens , starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the mother and daughter who shared an East Hampton, N.Y., house (Grey Gardens) and a name (Edith Bouvier Beale) for about 25 years too long. In the process of creating the film, which premieres April 18 on HBO, he got used to people reading his script (or seeing a rough cut of the film) and saying they now wanted to see the Maysles version. In each of these instances, Sucsy, who had the same reaction I did when he first saw the '75 documentary, warned everyone that they might be disappointed -- at first.

It takes repeated viewings of the film to truly understand why it's become, as University of Sussex film professor John David Rhodes describes it, a "rite of passage for gay men." (Rhodes remembers how in 1992, on his first night in New York, his gay uncle took him to Kim's Video on Bleecker Street to get the tape.) Spotting the camp beneath the train wreck is crucial to honing the camp sensibility that's as much a part of the urban gay man's development as big biceps-augmenting the movie-queen Grand Guignol curriculum of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest .

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"It was one of the films that all of us quoted to each other," Rhodes says. "It served as a kind of recondite, East Village version of camp, classical Hollywood."

Still, you don't need a degree in queer theory to see the attractions: Little Edie's famous, madcap approach to wardrobe; her equally hilarious flair for conversation, in which, like her clothing, she melds the utterly practical and sublimely absurd; and the fact that she was Jackie Kennedy's first cousin. What gay man wouldn't identify with someone who wore outlandish outfits, starred in her own movie, and was related to (and prettier than) Jackie? "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" -- Edie's highly hummable fashion manifesto from the 2006 Grey Gardens Broadway musical -- packed all three of these, Little Edie's biggest charms, into one big bring-down-the-house number that leapt into the camp hall of fame right next to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "I'm the Greatest Star."

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