Lily Bart, Susan Boyle and Grey Gardens

We watched the excellent HBO film Grey Gardens, with great performances by Drew Barrymore and the extraordinary Jessica Lange. For someone who grew up in a working class part of Long Island, the Hamptons and the people who lived there were an abstraction from Life and Look magazines. When the pictures and story broke of Jackie O’s family members living in squalor, it cracked open a fetid world of class and privilege. It wasn’t until many years later that I got around to seeing the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. Something that the Barrymore/Lange movie glosses over is the generational contempt and almost giddy delight that contemporary audiences took in dwelling on the pathetic, co-dependent mother/daughter relationship. This was not in any way a loving portrait nor was it taken as such. What warmth came out of it was from the strength of the sick bond between this mother and daughter. And the implication that Edie was anything but a cruel joke onstage after her mother passed away is nonsense. The audience was laughing *at* her. The documentary and Edie’s stage career were as much about generational contempt as a comeuppance for the privileged classes.

The same day, I happened to watch the last hour or so of the flawed but gorgeous 2000 Gillian Anderson vehicle, The House of Mirth, written and directed by Terrence Davies from Edith Wharton’s novel. Contrary to what you might think from the title, this is the dark, sad story of Lily Bart, a beautiful society woman who falls from grace through careless handling of finances and romantic attachments similar to the circumstances that ruined young Edie Beale. Lily describes herself in frustration as a “useless woman” because she has never learned any skills to help her take care of herself. The same can be said for both Beale women. Lily became invisible whereas Edie and her mother became the focus of a vicious ridicule that played off their shared desire to be noticed. This feels very much like the negative energy that fuels shows like Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol.

Which brings me to the surprising and wonderful singer, Susan Boyle. I’ve watched that clip many times now, both to see the surprise and delight of the cynical judges and audience and to just watch Susan work. Susan resembles my Great Aunt Doris, who came to visit us on Long Island from Coventry in the early 1970s. I remember my sister trying to do something with Doris’ hair, only to have Doris reach for a tube of Crest toothpaste (thinking it was hair creme) to smoothe it out. She wore similar cotton dresses and was invisible in the same ways that Susan may be in public. Except Susan has that voice, which melts the pent up resentment that the public has toward anyone who wants to move up, to achieve something, to create beauty. And unlike Edie Beale’s performances, noone is laughing at Susan Boyle’s talent and dedication.

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