ON TV: Grey Gardens

Movieline Score: 9

Calculating as they were, even the Maysles Brothers didn't likely foresee the ways their 1976 documentary Grey Gardens would captivate the American imagination. One follow-up doc, one Tony-award winning musical, and now one superb film adaptation later, Big and Little Edie Beale remain both as accessible and as elusive as they were when the filmmakers first arrived at their shambolic East End estate almost four decades ago. That paradox is made definitively clear in Michael Sucsy's new Beale biopic, premiering Saturday on HBO. And the contrast owes almost everything to stars Jessica Lange and, in the performance of her life, Drew Barrymore.

And to think Barrymore, herself a scion of complex Hollywood legend, wasn't even supposed to get this role. As Sucsy told Movieline earlier this week, he required convincing (and more convincing) before casting her as Edith Bouvier Beale, the aspiring actress and cabaret star who ultimately retreated to a squalid life alongside mother Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (played by Lange). That's where the Maysles found them in 1973, monoliths of codependency and alienation. And it's where, 40 years earlier, the Beale ladies had summered with paterfamilias Phelan Beale (Ken Howard), outrunning the Depression until his money -- and his patience -- finally ran out.

Soon left alone in her sprawling manse while Little Edie chases fame (and married men) in the city, Big Edie connives to return her disreputable daughter to Grey Gardens for good. For the most part it works, triggering the stress-related alopecia that afflicted Little Edie for the remainder of her life. Together uneasily, overrun by cats, surrounded by debris and with their slight trust fund exhausted, the women develop a sort of marriage of their own.

The relationship mirrors the disrepair around them, spurring municipal concern, press attention and, ultimately, an act of noblesse oblige by their distant cousin Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Her arrival in a limousine triggers an outburst of jealousy from Little Edie, who jabs at Jackie O with what remains of her undernourished ambition. For Barrymore, it's the darkest mood in her spectrum -- a vacuum swallowing the exuberance that once propelled Little Edie's rise.

Barrymore has always navigated that range with physicality alone (if her darling feminine foils were lucky enough to have a point of view at all). Little Edie can't withstand such caricature, though. There's a real fever to her swagger and longing in her lustiness, which reemerges before the Maysles' camera. "I flirt a lot," she tells a Manhattan paramour, grinning irrepressibly. "But it's all talk -- mostly!" It's a helpful metaphor for Barrymore herself; for maybe the first time in her career, her immersion goes beyond dialect or voluptuousness and into the sincere rapture of character. Lange, who's had far better luck in 30 years, matches Barrymore nearly scene for scene, perhaps disappearing into her old-lady prosthetics a little too well on occasion. Sucsy entrusts her with the myth-building portion of Grey Gardens, that of a woman responsible for the compounded collapse of family, self and home.

Once Albert Maysles (Arye Gross) and his brother David (Justin Louis) arrive to chronicle those declines, the tragedy gives way to a kind of privileged witness. Still, the Maysleses are given little more to do than float around, a couple of winking evil geniuses. And their final product merely entitles Sucsy and co-writer Patricia Rozema to their own characters' canny, climactic clash of wills. It's almost too meta to stand, but hey. Who's going to let something as minor as filmmaking -- then and now -- get in the way of a story as good as this? RATING (out of 10): 9