Why Betty Buckley Almost Didn’t Take Her Role in ‘Grey Gardens’

By Patrick Pacheo

Hamptons Magazine

Betty Buckley was excited when Michael Wilson, one of her favorite directors, called to ask if she would be interested in starring in his production of the musical Grey Gardens at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, starting on August 4. Then after thinking for a moment, her heart sank. At frst Buckley thought Wilson was calling to offer her the role of “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale in the musical about Beale and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, the eccentric duo who made headlines in the 1970s when they were discovered living in squalor inside a decaying East Hampton manse. Albert and David Maysles, created the 1975 documentary on which the 2006 Tony-winning Broadway musical is based. At Bay Street, Rachel York will be playing “Little Edie,” with Buckley as her self-absorbed and loopy mother. The longtime actress has since made peace with this turning point in her career. “I had to go through a real process to make the decision to do this,” Buckley says with a rueful laugh.

Arriving in New York in 1969 from Fort Worth, Texas, Buckley, now 68, debuted on Broadway in 1776. Film and television roles followed, most notably in the 1983 drama-musical Tender Mercies and the TV series Eight Is Enough. But she scored her greatest triumph in the theater, winning the 1983 Tony Award for playing the ravaged Grizabella in Cats and earning rave reviews for her deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

“I think all my women have been frustrated by circumstance,” says Buckley, including Big Edie, whose dream of a career in show business went unfulflled. “[Both Edies are] very strong, very powerful, and very passionate characters, but they’re also vulnerable because they’ve been so oppressed and abused. Both are kind of ‘a wild child’ in the wrong time period and social setting, which causes them to implode in this strange, symbiotic relationship. I hope that we can bring some illumination as to why this happened.”

The character of Big Edie spends almost all of her time supine in a bathrobe; this inertia is a cautionary tale for Buckley. She says that the whole aging process too often points people toward stasis. Buckley diagnoses Big Edie’s malaise as “the bathrobe problem”—waking up and staying in her bathrobe all day. “All of us [can] have that problem. No one is exempt,” she says.

The advantage that Buckley has in keeping youthful is her love of animals and her artistry. What continues to inspire and engage her is the wonder of the “beautiful and exquisite” universe in which she fnds herself, whether she is riding horses in the green expanse of her ranch, recording her latest album, Ghostlight, with T Bone Burnett, or taking on the role of Big Edie.

“Telling stories is staying in touch with the animating force, the pure energy of whatever it is you call God,” she says. “ We [actors] are lucky because your profession is promoting your wellbeing in life because they go together. It’s not so easy, but, oh, it’s so worth it.”

Grey Gardens, August 4-30; tickets $63–$85; Bay Street Theater, corner of Bay and Main Streets, Sag Harbor, 725-9500