Drew Barrymore greets Jessica Lange with her pet name for the two-time Oscar winner.
"Mother darling!" Barrymore trills, with a gentle hug in deference to Lange's broken collarbone and bruised ribs, sustained during a fall at her Minnesota cabin last month.
Barrymore uses the term of endearment both in person and "all the time when she calls. That's how I always know it's her," Lange says.
It's the fittingly theatrical nickname Barrymore's character has for Lange in HBO's "Grey Gardens," premiering Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The highly anticipated film is based on the 1975 documentary about the eccentric mother-and-daughter duo of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and their derelict, destitute existence at the family's once-grand East Hampton estate.
"These two women absolutely adored one another," Lange says. "When you think of them living together for 40 years, with most of those years in isolation — for a lot of those years my character never left the house. They entertained one another so well. They sing. They dance. They've got their makeup."
The movie spans four decades and chronicles the Beales' decline from society darlings to recluses who lived in a ramshackle house infested with feral cats and raccoons. In the film, Lange, 59, goes from glamorous, bejeweled, upper-crust songbird with thwarted showbiz ambitions to a toothless, tattered crone yearning for her kitties. Barrymore, 34, turns from adorable but rebellious debutante to an oddly imperious, often ornery misanthrope who pines for the fame she never had.
Variety calls Barrymore's and Lange's performances "marvelous." The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, praised Barrymore for managing "to magnify the persona until we can see inside Edie more clearly" and Lange for bringing Big Edie "into focus more sharply than the documentary did."
It's the product of painstaking preparation, says director Michael Sucsy.
"Little Edie has a confidence about her as well as a constant nervousness, and Drew fed that into her character. Her energy matched Edie's," Sucsy says. "Big Edie is in bed a lot of the time, and the world revolves around her. Jessica is a very grounded woman, and she brought that to the character. She doesn't have a flighty vibe about her, and that felt right. Both actresses got down the women's mannerisms, how they twitched their hands. They became the Beales."
This project is a pivotal one for both women and a high-profile production for HBO. It's Lange's first notable film role since her supporting role in Bill Murray's 2005 dramedy "Broken Flowers." As for Barrymore, it's her chance to prove that there's more depth to her acting than the chipper flower child — who talks out of the side of her mouth — from "Charlie's Angels" and "The Wedding Singer."
Barrymore says she was "desperate" to play Little Edie because "you don't often read characters that are that fleshed out and have that long of a time span you get to play."
After pursuing, and landing, the part, Barrymore spent a year and a half working with a vocal coach to perfect Little Edie's unique way of speaking.