The Prequel to “Grey Gardens”
During the summer of 1972, photographer Peter Beard and socialite Lee Radziwill, the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, discussed making a film about the changes being caused by the rapid development occurring in East Hampton, Long Island and the history of Radziwill’s family. Upon arriving with their crew, they soon realized that the real story was already with Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, Radziwill’s aunt and cousin who were living in squalor and l isolation in the dilapidated mansion known as Grey Gardens. For unknown and/or unexplained reasons, the project was left unfinished but two of the members of the film crew, documentarians Albert and David Maysles, were so fascinated by the Beales that they returned later and made “Grey Gardens” in 1975. This documentary made cult figures out of the Beales and was responsible for the documentary “The Beales of Grey Gardens” (2006), a 2006 stage musical and a 2009 HBO movie staring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing the two women. Some four reels of 16mm footage from that original abandoned shoot were never shown and for years were thought to be lost. Having been recently discovered, that film is what makes up the new documentary, “That Summer”.
We wonder how could a blue-blooded mother and daughter have gone from high-society debutantes to feeding cats and raccoons in the attic? This is what makes Göran Olsson’s “That Summer” important. We see how the Maysles brothers came to decide on make their original documentary. Lee Radziwill, hired them to help film a documentary about her father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III. To tell his story, she deigned to interview his sister, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and niece, Edith Bouvier Beale, who were known as Big and Little Edie. But as I said, that film was not made but Maysles soon turned their fascination with the women into their own next project. The new footage in “That Summer” shows the Beales amid their cousins’ attempts to save the Grey Gardens estate from its fallen state.
It is immediately striking how much less flighty and flirtatiously Little Edie is. In the other documentaries, we see that she had an intense crush on David Maysles, and that probably was why she welcomed his camera into her home but that is far less prominent in “That Summer.” Here Little Edie seems more conspicuously embarrassed by what her life has become. We see as much a lack of patience for her cousin Lee as she has for her mother and she thinks about what will happen to her if she spends one more winter in the Hamptons. We see Razdiwill as a helpful lifeline (but then the footage here was commissioned by her).
“That Summer” fills in the gap of the period when the Beales then became famous in the media for being the poor relatives of Jackie O. Aristotle Onassis and Radziwill paid for renovations of the mansion and helped with other bills. We see visits from the county health inspectors who threaten to evict the women, reporters and a lawyer who came to their defense, and contractors hired to make plumbing and roof repairs. Radziwill’s children, Prince Anthony and Princess Anna Christina, also show up and feed bread to the raccoons. There are also wonderful new things for us to see here.
We actually see the known, but never seen background to the women’s story. The film’s introduction shows Beard leafing through a book of his photographs of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger and others, plus African wildlife, without explanation. Eventually it becomes clear that this is all set up for how Beard and Radziwill got together and came up with the idea for the project in the Hamptons. The voice-over narration recalls the experience of meeting and filming the Beales.
When Beard, Radziwill and the crew arrived at Grey Gardens, there had been no real visitors there in more than five years and the house and grounds had fallen into such disrepair that county authorities were threatening to evict the Beales. The presence of the film crew and past bad experiences with the local authorities upset the Beales. Edith was much crueler towards everyone other than Radziwill—at one point, she talks about how the many cats they have (including one she claims bears a resemblance to Ted Kennedy) get rid of all the vermin and snaps to her daughter “The only vermin here is you, Edie.” For Little Edie, there are moments in which a certain melancholia about her life comes through.
The footage in “That Summer” is more empathetic towards its subjects but they and their quirks are regarded by Radziwill with obvious love and affection and no small amount of admiration for the way that they have chosen to live life on their own unusual terms. Little Edie indeed publicly trashed Radziwill in later years.
“That Summer” is basically a prequel of sorts to a key Seventies movie that fills in a little of the back-story of a couple of its most notable characters.