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

1025 GREY GARDENS MICHAEL SUCSY X390 (PETER ROSS) | ADVOCATE.COM

Barrymore was also drawn to Little Edie's freewheeling way of saying one thing and then coming back with the completely opposite point of view. This fast-twirling yin-yang of contradictions is something most people might attempt to hide behind a cool and composed facade. Not Edie.

"I remember meeting with a studio executive once who said, 'Look, I read your script, and frankly, this is full of contradictions,'È‚f;" Sucsy says. "That's one of the things that was so amazing about Drew -- how she was excited by that. She really understood."

The most frequent (and poignant) of the contradictions is Little Edie's wish to be married versus her desire to remain single and free. While superficially opposite, both betray the loneliness Edie felt as well as her sad suspicion that she was inherently too flawed to be loved.

The theme of contradiction is echoed in the house itself. Although broken-down and decrepit, Grey Gardens is right there in glamorous East Hampton, the cream of America's summer resorts, less than 200 yards from one of the nation's most desirable beaches. In many ways, gay people live that close to the country's culture and may even go to that beach; but we are, in other ways, still as far away as Little Edie was.

For all the heartbreak, though, the growing cult around Grey Gardens seldom dwells on the down spots, and the new film ends on a sweetly high note. Young gay men today are less likely to sing along to the bittersweet strains of "I Will Survive." Today's camp icons are characters like Cher Horowitz from Clueless , Elle Woods of Legally Blonde , and the gals from Sex and the City . So while there may not be much for them in the mother-daughter melodramas of yesterday, there's plenty for fashion-besotted 20-somethings to be had in Little Edie and her take on style.

And that style, Barrymore explains, has a mystery all its own. "Cat and I would have to freeze-frame [the documentary] to figure out how [Little Edie] pinned things," she says, referring to the film's costume designer, Catherine Marie Thomas. "One time, it took us forever to figure what she'd done. It was two shirts, one worn as a shirt and one worn as a skirt -- with the arms wrapped around for a belt. These were extremely theatrical people. Life was a stage."

Robb Brawn, custodian of the fan site MyGreyGardens.com , agrees that Little Edie's fashion sense was far from superficial. The two of them became friends in 1979, after Big Edie had died, Grey Gardens had been sold, and Little Edie moved to New York City to launch her long-dreamed-of, short-lived cabaret career. (She gave 16 performances at Reno Sweeney in the West Village.)

"To me, Edie's thing wasn't just that it's OK to be different -- and this was the 1970s, when it wasn't OK," Brawn says. "She was saying, 'I'm not just here to be accepted, I want to be celebrated.' They were happy in their own skin, she and Big Edie, being who they were, and that's what a lot of gay people relate to. We shouldn't have to explain why we're here or be tolerated or accepted. We're not all as philosophical as Edie, but we feel that way."

So why settle for Gloria, Mae, Joan, Bette, Judy, Rita, Katharine, Marilyn, Lana, Barbra, Faye, Liza, Sissy, Jessica, Meryl, or Madonna? Edie is all of them, stripped down to one sparkling, hilarious talent yearning to be loved and applauded.

And brimming over, as she always is, with the fervent hope that tomorrow will be different and with the nagging fear that it won't be, she is also, so clearly, all of us.

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