Sara Vilkomerson’s Third Stringer: Crazy Ladies

c stringergreygardens04 Sara Vilkomersons Third Stringer: Crazy LadiesThe thing about the classic 1975 Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, which follows Jackie O.’s eccentric and reclusive relatives Big and Little Edie Beale, is that beyond all of its campy craziness—and boy, there is an awful lot—there is real sadness, too (and lessons to be learned: namely, stop adopting cats and don’t move home with motherdarling!). The new HBO feature film Grey Gardens, which uses the documentary as a framework, delves deep into that melancholic place, exploring how exactly the ladies reached the bizarre state in which we met them in the Maysles doc.

Co-written and directed by Michael Sucsy, the film spans four decades of the women’s formerly glamorous lives—going back to when they were just sort of charmingly weird like so many rich people. Jessica Lange plays Big Edie with great depth and poise, but it’s Drew Barrymore who steals the show as the heartbreaking Little Edie. Ms. Barrymore, whom we’ve always loved in romantic comedies like Music & Lyrics and Never Been Kissed (and even in entertaining silliness like Charlie’s Angels), is downright amazing. For those familiar with the original documentary, prepare to be spooked by just how well the actress nails Edie’s mid-Atlantic drawl and dramatic aspirations. Seeing her as a young woman and knowing where her life will end up is a little bit like watching a horror movie, but both actresses take great pains not to play their parts for cheap laughs. Though you’re forgiven if you can’t stifle a giggle or two along the way.

Grey Gardens premieres April 18 on HBO.

svilkomerson@observer.com