Drew Barrymore is tearing her hair out. Rather, she is hacking it off with a pair of kitchen shears. In her new HBO film Grey Gardens, Barrymore’s character, Little Edie Beale, a cousin of Jacqueline Onassis and once the beauty queen of East Hampton, suffers from alopecia—constantly losing her brunette mane (and her hopeful shot at an acting or dancing career). So one night, in a fit of animalistic madness, Edie chops off what she has left, crying and screaming as she cuts. It’s an arresting moment on screen, and as good a portrayal of a woman’s descent into madness as audiences will see on television this year. The scissors scene cements it: Drew Barrymore can really act, and this is the role that will make people notice.
“People who say this is exploitative are bullshit. Get a heart and get into the art and the life and celebrate with us all; don’t be on the other side—it’s really not fun over there.”
In playing Edie—a real-life woman that some argue was exploited as a film character for her eccentricities and strangeness—it would be easy for Barrymore to feel that she was capitalizing on a spinster’s mental illness. Instead, her portrayal is loving and tender, a fact she staunchly defends.
“People who say this is exploitative are bullshit,” she tells The Daily Beast. “Anyone who is a naysayer should pull a stick out of their you know what. You know? Get a heart and get into the art and the life and celebrate with us all; don’t be on the other side—it’s really not fun over there.”
Watch the trailer for HBO’s Grey Gardens.
To play Little Edie is a difficult challenge for any actress, and one that requires this type of defense. Though the new version of Grey Gardens is a scripted film, it is based on a cult-classic documentary of the same name about Little Edie and her mother (also Edith, known as Big Edie) that Albert and David Maysles made in 1976. The brothers filmed the Edies in their dilapidated Hamptons home (dubbed Grey Gardens), where mother and daughter had become shut-ins after losing their family trust. The house is run-down to the point of condemnation; raccoons in every room, piles of trash covering every surface, an impossible stench of rot, mildew, and aging women. But Little Edie and Big Edie stick together, re-imagining their younger days—Little Edie wanted to act in New York, Big Edie stayed in the Hamptons to live out her days as a Bohemian singer—and entertaining one another with songs and a parade of homemade outfits.
Because Barrymore (and Jessica Lange, who is at once formidable and delightful as Big Edie) had the real women to work from, they had to be especially sensitive in their portrayals. Critics often describe the Beales as mentally ill hermits, and the documentary (and later, the Broadway musical and now, the HBO film that have come out of it) as at least partially taking advantage of their dire situation. Barrymore, however, argues that the film is what Edie would have wanted—she always dreamed of becoming a star in her life, and she was, even if it was through the documentation of her peculiarities.
Barrymore insists that Little Edie, who was so proud of the documentary when it came out, had every right to bask in the attention and to celebrate it: “Most of the time, unfortunately, the people who have changed the world—especially creatively—usually never know it,” Barrymore says. “They die, and then the phenomenon happens. If Edie had some moments where she could see how great she was, and live in that moment, that’s what made me so happy for her. With iconoclastic people it’s all posthumous. Thank God for any of the moments where she got to revel in it.”
And Little Edie is an iconoclastic character, one that is especially apropos to be revisiting in a time of recession. Though Edie and her mother had nothing besides each other, a hot plate, and a record player, and though was deeply unhappy for having given up her New York aspirations to live out her days at Grey Gardens after her mother’s divorce, Litle Edie had an extremely strong sense of self, and of style. In addition to her iconic headscarves to hide her baldness (always festooned with the same gold brooch), Edie invented new ways to wear her old clothes from her socialite days, reinterpreting them in her shut-in poverty. She wore cardigans as hats, turned skirts inside-out and safety-pinned them in a new hem, and turned curtains and sofa upholstery into palazzo pants and cocktail dresses. “This is the best costume for the day,” the real Edie famously told the Maysles in her first shot of the documentary, wearing a strange mash-up of a black bathing suit and a skirt turned upside down. Barrymore nails the line perfectly.
“She’s brilliant. One of the best examples of how to dig from within when you don’t have much,” says Barrymore. In other words—the ultimate recessionista. “She knew how to re-imagine her outfits into something that’s artistic, and inspiring and aesthetically innovative and pleasing.”
“I remember there was this one frame where Cat Thomas—the costume designer—and I were just baffled by what Little Edie was wearing,” Barrymore remembers. “We could not figure out how she made it. We kept pausing and enhancing. Then we realized she had taken two men’s shirts and made them into a dress, she used the waistband of one of the shirts as a belt. It’s amazing what she did.”
“It was nice to have something to put my darkness and my anger and my drama into. I’m not happy and smiling every second of the day, believe me.”
And yet, just as Barrymore was able to revel in Edie’s creativity and moments of childlike joy, the actress also says that this is her darkest role yet—the hair-cutting scene, for example, or the many scenes in which Edie laments never having left home and feeling like a dead-end failure. For someone with such a sunny reputation as Barrymore, she is glad that people can see her summoning her sullen side.
“I understand Edie’s rebellions,” says the 34-year-old actress, who famously went to rehab at 13 for alcohol and drug use. “It was nice to have something to put my darkness and my anger and my drama into. I’m not happy and smiling every second of the day, believe me.”
Watch the trailer for the original Grey Gardens.
And though Drew argues that she and Edie have little in common, they both understand the pressure of coming from a prominent family (the Bouvier-Beales and the Barrymores). In the film, Edie confronts Jackie O. (a very prim Jeanne Tripplehorn), saying that she should have been the first lady instead—and Barrymore says that she understands the jealousy.
“I think we all have the desire in us to have what someone else is having, and it’s bullshit if we say we never do,” she says. “We also have to believe that there’s enough to go around for everybody, but you can fall on the other side of the line and just be bitter and envious and all that crap. It’s bullshit if you say don’t have moments where you wish you could tear someone apart. For me, I really hooked into the hair in that scene. I couldn’t stop staring at that fucking head of hair on Jeanne; and I imagined what Edie felt when she saw something like that walk into a room. She must have thought, ‘Man, why did I not get to live a life with something as simple as that, as simple as hair?’”
But, as Barrymore recognizes, nothing about Little Edie or her life inside Grey Gardens could be simple. From a young age, she craved attention and stardom, yet was scared to leave her mother and the confines of home. “Edie is a walking contradiction,” the actress says. “Her mother was everything; her mother’s approval, her mother’s singing, her mother’s philosophies; her mother was the person that she felt she understood the most. But she said she wanted to get out of the house everyday. But then, the door wasn’t locked. She was too afraid to leave; her mother was an excuse to have to stay, and yet she griped about it all the time— it’s always a back and forth with her.”
To get into this mindset, of being extremely lonely and confused, Barrymore went into her own isolation chamber for three months—no cell phone, no computer, no outside visitors. “I had me and my green IBM electric typewriter, writing manifestos late at night when I couldn’t sleep” she says. “I’m much different than her—I’m more of a social butterfly, and I felt that it was important to be real. I didn’t want to be like, ‘Groovy, yeah, time for the shot? Okay, I’ll just jump into character!’ I have to live and breathe and be this person at all times and even then I’m terrified I’m not pulling it off. “
Fortunately, the actress does more than pull it off. Barrymore not only embodies Little Edie perfectly as a mimic—she has the accent, the silly dances, the sidelong glances at the camera completely right—but she also pulls something else out of herself, something audiences have not seen from the actress before. She is no longer the little girl from ET or the bouncy twenty something who would take to the red carpet with daisies in her hair, but a grown woman (literally—Edie is in her 50s for much of the film), one with complexities and thwarted ambitions, as well as a wild creativity that continued to blossom until her death in 2002.
Little Edie is a dream role for any actress—a case study in madness and the tragic downfall of the wealthy—but after seeing Drew Barrymore embody her, it is difficult to think of any other woman who could have portrayed Beale with such delicate buoyancy. Barrymore’s natural sunniness works in the role—even as much as she would like us to see her dark side—because Little Edie ultimately loved and celebrated life. Holed up inside Grey Gardens, Edie invented an entire world her head, where she and her mother were stars and their lives were infinite—and with Barrymore and Lange’s loving tribute, now they will be.
Grey Gardens premieres on HBO on Saturday, April 18, 8 p.m. EST
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.