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Reality becomes fiction in HBO’s great Grey Gardens and MTV’s so-so Pedro

Two recent scripted TV films–MTV’s Pedro and HBO’s Grey Gardens–fictionalize people who are best known for their appearances in nonfiction, a reality show and a documentary respectively.

Pedro, a biopic about The Real World San Francisco cast member Pedro Zamora, debuted on MTV at the beginning of the month, and can be viewed online. It’s introduced by Bill Clinton, who notes that “Pedro changed the face of HIV and AIDS in America forever.” That’s a legacy absolutely worth acknowledging, and the film does a good job overall of doing that, telling Pedro’s story as it touches on themes that are important and resonate today, 15 years later.

But it’s also hurt by some pretty terrible acting and a script, written by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, that romanticizes Pedro more than it tries to explore his life, and for some reason opts for a ridiculous faux-documentary style but only occasionally, with actors talking to the camera as if they were making a documentary. Still, the film isn’t bad, like its trailer made it seem like it would be, as it ends up illuminating and dramatizing a lot of Pedro’s life that wasn’t really part of the show, from his family being separated during the Mariel Boat Lift to the way Bunim-Murray producers asked to call him Pedro even though everyone called him Peter.

As to the show, the most striking thing the film reveals about The Real World San Francisco is how the cast actually just seemed to be living their lives, a reminder of how the show used to be. The producers even off to give him “space,” but since the film is produced by the reality show’s producers, I’m not sure how credible those moments are. Then again, to its credit, the film cops to a lot of the artificiality of the show, from production stuff to the way MTV was actively searching for an HIV-positive cast member. (Executive producer and series creator Jon Murray, who’s openly gay, cameos as a homophobic educator.)

The cinematography–it’s shot mostly with hand-held cameras–is impressive, and the production values seem strong, but couldn’t they have found more people who can act? About half of the actors playing Real World members are less believable than people on The Hills, and it’s like watching some bad experimental theater that tries to recreate reality show scenes. The other actors are hit or miss, sometimes believable (Six Feed Under’s Justina Machado is terrific as his sister) and are sometimes cringe-inducing. Alex Loynaz, who plays Pedro, is better but not always believable. Pedro’s life and legacy deserve a tribute, but one that’s more consistently strong.

Meanwhile, HBO’s new film Grey Gardens debuted Saturday and Saturday and repeates frequently this month. It’s a fictional film about the Beales, known as Big Edie and Little Edie, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy who lived in incredible squalor and massive delusion in a Long Island house known as Grey Gardens.

They became the subject of a documentary in 1975, also called Grey Gardens, that has since gained cult following, and as a result has been translated into everything from a Broadway musical to an upcoming book. The Albert and David Maysles original documentary is on DVD (in a Criterion edition) and a two-disc Criterion edition with The Beales of Grey Gardens.

The new film takes place over three different periods of time and attempts to explain how the Beales ended up as the women we meet in the documentary, and stars Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Drew Barrymore as Little Edie, plus Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Barrymore is perhaps the most surprising, as she nearly becomes Little Edie, a pretty sharp turn from the kind of roles she usually has. Lange is fantastic as well, especially in scenes where she plays the younger Big Edie, who worked hard to make her life seem like what she wanted it to be, not what it was. Together, and with the assistance of stunning production design, they give life to the Beales outside of their documentary selves, explaining how they ended up living the ends of their lives as co-dependent adults as their house crumbled around them.

At times it seems like the film jumps between moments and misses the connective tissue, but those moments usually end up connecting the dots. The new film stumbles the most when it recreates moments from the documentary, because even two great actresses just can’t compete with people who were not acting, but were instead showing us a part of their incredibly complex selves. That’s the power of documentary film and reality TV, and it’s nice that fiction can occasionally make us appreciate that even more.

Pedro: B
Grey Gardens: A-/B+

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