A former society beauty who longed to become an actress, Little Edie Beale lived with her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale (played by Lange) in a dilapidated 28-room mansion in East Hampton, overrun with cats and raccoons. The pair were the subject of David and Albert Maysles’s 1975 cult documentary Grey Gardens (and the 2006 Broadway musical), named for the estate where they lived in isolated squalor. The HBO film builds on scenes from the documentary, spanning 40 years and exploring how vibrant Little Edie, her dreams thwarted, came to live out her days with only her overbearing mother as companion.
Playing Edie tapped some private corner of Barrymore’s psyche. Onscreen, and even off, she’s always been eager to please, the sunny, lighthearted star whose winning performance in the 2005 comedy Fever Pitch prompted New York Times critic Manohla Dargis to write that she “inspires more goodwill than any other young actress I can think of working today in American movies.” Such is the range of her appeal that she has claimed the covers of Playboy, Seventeen and Ladies’ Home Journal; this past February, Barrymore beat out Jay Leno and Oprah (Oprah!) to win Greyhound’s first-ever survey to name America’s favorite celebrity road-trip buddy. Barrymore calls herself an optimist but is the first to concede that she works hard to be happy. “I get out of bed with a spring in my step like, I’m going to f---in’ rock this day,” she says. “I’m going to make people happy. Here I go.”
The self-doubting Edie, by turns withdrawn and theatrical, liberated her from playing that part. “I was excited to bring my own pain to something,” says Barrymore, without a hint of any of it. “I mean, contrary to my happy-go-luckiness, I have so much darkness in there. Playing Edie, I felt like s---. I thought, I’m afraid beyond anything I’ve ever known. I’m miserable; I’m scared; I feel sick all the time. And I was like, Good! At least I have somewhere to put it. You know what? I’m not f---in’ happy all the time. I like making people feel good, but it was great not to have to please anybody. I was out there for myself and for her.”
Barrymore stayed in character during the initial rehearsals at the actual Grey Gardens and through the entire seven-and-a-half-week shoot in Toronto in 2007, refusing all contact with even her closest friends, save for her then boyfriend, actor Justin Long, who visited the set once or twice. Being Edie from age 18 to 60 involved wigs, prosthetics and five hours of daily makeup. Wanting to feel as cut off from the world as Edie had, she didn’t use her cell phone or laptop or watch TV, and she read only Edie’s journals and favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, The Marble Faun. The actress insisted that everyone on set call her Edie, and as Edie, composed journal entries and letters to Long on a typewriter. (Her best friend and producing partner, Nancy Juvonen, sent Barrymore a formal letter, addressed to Edie, to invite her to her wedding to Jimmy Fallon.) Fearing she might “snap,” Sucsy recalls, he suggested she return to playing Drew on Saturdays. Her dresser, Kent Cummins, an old friend of hers, confided to Sucsy, “Even the Saturday-night Drew wasn’t the full Drew.”