Film

That Summer Offers a More Human Look at the Women of Grey Gardens

As a “prequel” look at the Beales, That Summer makes for a fascinating contrast between the icons they have been turned into and the people they were before then.

Little Edie Beale singing and Lee Radziwill in the garden of Grey Gardens in That Summer by Göran Olsson (courtesy Sundance Selects)

In 1975, a cult-hit documentary turned a pair of celebrity-adjacent recluses into unlikely pop icons. Grey Gardensfrom filmmaking siblings Albert and David Maysles and co-directors Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, made the titular Long Island manor into an instant cultural signifier for faded glory and eccentric womanhood. The movie is equally beloved by cinephiles, who appreciate its position in the history of direct cinema, and camp enthusiasts, who idolize its unique, extremely quotable lead subjects, the Beales. Popular fascination with that mother-daughter pair would lead various creators back to them over the years, even after their deaths. But before all that, there was a different, abandoned film project featuring the Beales. The new documentary That Summer is not just another movie cashing in on Grey Gardens interest, but a peek back through the decades into a formerly closed-off piece of history.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”) might have gone unseen by the wider world, historical footnotes for the fact that they were the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. By 1972, they were black sheep to the old money Bouvier clan, having secluded themselves for 20 years in Grey Gardens, their onetime East Hampton summer home. Long cut out of all wills and bereft of any funds, the Beales were unable to maintain the 28-room house, which by that year was derelict and rife with stray cats (among other wildlife) and fleas. The county health department was prepared to destroy the house, but a New York Magazine article brought wide attention to the Beales’s plight, and Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill funded a cleanup effort.

Lee Radziwill threading a film projector in That Summer (courtesy Sundance Selects)

That renovation, which didn’t so much restore Grey Gardens as it did upgrade its condition from unlivable to squalid, was to be the backdrop for a documentary by artist Peter Beard. Beard was Radziwill’s boyfriend at the time, and she suggested that her and her sister’s youth in East Hampton would make a good subject for a film. The Maysles were part of Beard’s crew in the summer of 1972, watching as handymen charged into the toxic mansion to drag out heaps of detritus, including hundreds of bags of emptied cat food cans, cat feces, and cat corpses. This was meant as but one episode in the chronicle of Onassis and Radziwill’s lives, but the Beales, with their penchant for extravagant costuming and dramatic proclamations, immediately captured the filmmakers’ attention, and the Maysles suggested that they’d make better subjects for a documentary. Ultimately, only four reels of footage were shot before Radziwill, dissatisfied, shut down the project. The Maysles would later return on their own to make Grey Gardens.

Beard’s four reels were considered lost for over 40 years before being rediscovered in a studio archive after Albert Maysles requested permission to use footage from his own film on a DVD. With That Summer, Swedish documentarian Göran Olsson has combined the footage from 1972 with new material provided by Beard to tell a different story about that time and place. Shot for a contemporary documentary, the footage instead now acts more like old home movies, and in voiceover, Beard reminiscences about those weeks on Long Island — not just with the Beales and in Grey Gardens, but with Radziwill and their wider circle of friends. Beard and Radziwill were staying that summer at their friend Andy Warhol’s compound in Montauk, and scenes there appear in the documentary, as does Warhol himself. Not only that, but Warhol also shot some of Beard’s footage. And he’s not the only famous artist to have lent a hand to the doomed production; avant-garde legend Jonas Mekas, another member of Beard’s cadre, manned a camera for him as well. That Summer hence acts as a glimpse at the cross section between New York high society and the artist class in the early 1970s, not as a collection of celebrities, but people at their most unguarded.

Olsson specializes in found footage documentaries, building new stories out of old materials. With The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, he used recently uncovered footage of the American civil rights movement shot by a Swedish film crew to look back on the period, combining the images with commentary from the likes of Harry Belafonte and Erykah Badu. In Concerning Violence, footage of the decolonization of Africa during the ’60s and ’70s was narrated by Fugees singer Lauryn Hill reading excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s essay of the same name from The Wretched of the Earth. 

That Summer is a mode shift for Olsson, less political and far more personal. Where his other films focused on the travails of normal human beings acting in response to the upheaval of larger events, this is nestled inside the solitude provided by the buffer of wealth and status. Even Big Edie and Little Edie, as impoverished as they were, had a certain level of comfort granted by their family connections. Even so, in the company of Jacqueline Kennedy Bouvier and Andy Warhol, the Beales come closest to regular human beings in this film.

Andy Warhol sitting on a log at the beach in Montauk in That Summer (courtesy Sundance Selects)

After Grey Gardens, the Beales became enduring pop culture figures. In 2006, the Maysles cobbled together unused footage from their shoot for a “sequel,” The Beales of Grey Gardens. That year also saw the premiere of a Broadway play, also called Grey Gardens, about the lives of the Beales, the second act of which transposes dialogue and events straight from the 1975 film. In 2009, a fiction Grey Gardens film about the Beales was made for HBO, starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. It, too, incorporated the making of the Maysles’s documentary into its plot. The Beales and Grey Gardens have been referenced across music, fashion, TV, and film. Hell, their young handyman was made famous enough to get his own New Yorker article, memoir, and documentary.

As a “prequel” look at the Beales, That Summer makes for a fascinating contrast between the icons they have been turned into and the people they were before then. The difference between an incredibly sad life and a “quirky” one may be the presence of an audience. All the qualities that would make Little Edie and Big Edie indelible documentary characters are present in Beard’s footage — their bickering with cats, waxing nostalgic for their misspent youths, impromptu song performances, and the like. But as marginal players in a wider ensemble instead of the focal point of a story, they don’t feel larger than life the way they do in Grey Gardens. Seeing them here, a viewer might not guess at the complicated relationship between the two women, or the tangle of messy broken romances and dreams that led them to the situation we see them in now. It took someone interested enough to dig deeper to uncover the Beales’s story, rather than their eccentricities. If Grey Gardens is the close-up, then That Summer pulls the camera back to better explain where these women stood in this time and place, and the world they were hiding from.

That Summer by Göran Olsson is screening at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave, West Village, Manhattan) and opens at the Laemmle’s Royal Theatre (11523 Santa Monica Boulevard, 1st Floor, Los Angeles) on May 25.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Peter Beard’s reels were confiscated by Lee Radziwill. This is incorrect; the reels were forgotten about. This has been amended. 

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