THAT SUMMER

Filling the Blanks

(That Summer, Göran Hugo Olsson’s fascinating new documentary that finally restores footage of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens that was thought lost for decades opens Friday in NY theaters.)

Göran Olsson assembled this prequel to the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens using long-lost footage that director Albert Maysles recently uncovered in a studio archive. Since the 4 reels alone weren’t enough to warrant a feature, Olsson added another layer by interviewing photographer Peter Beard about his involvement in That Summer that spawned a cult phenomenon. Uninitiated audiences may struggle to grasp the significance of the found footage. However, Big and Little Edies’ pre-existing fans will relish this early look at the eccentric recluses who lived in squalor despite their familial connection to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Not many documentaries earn a sequel, let alone instigate a franchise. But that’s what happened with Albert and David Maysles breakout hit. Grey Gardens warranted a sequel, a musical, a play, and a 2009 TV movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. It was more than a precursor to Hoarders. It was a commentary on faded glory, high society, public image, and autonomy. But the much-beloved film happened almost by accident. Lee Bouvier Radziwell initially hired The Maysles and her then-boyfriend Peter Beard, to explore what became of the Bouvier sisters’ childhood summer stomping grounds. When the crew accompanied Radziwell to her relatives’ estate, they stumbled upon an unexpected and irresistible opportunity to capture the larger-than-life former socialites who were languishing in squalor.

Believe it or not, the Grey Gardens estate in the 1975 film was an upgrade. In 1971, the Beales lived without running water or power, and were surrounded by feces-filled trash bags and animal corpses. That year, a New York Magazine article profiled the estate after a police raid found it in violation of numerous local ordinances. The Beales couldn’t afford to bring the house up to code and faced eviction. Whether motivated by familial responsibility or the shame of bad press, Radziwell hired handymen and contractors to save her kin. In the end, it cost the Bouviers $30,000 to make Grey Gardens into the barely livable abode the Maysles ultimately captured in their film. As Radziwell interacted with her aunt and cousin, the Maysles saw an opportunity for a much more intriguing story than that of Radziwell’s privileged childhood.

Because Radziwell was bankrolling the film, the Maysles tried to sell her on the narrative deviation. But Radziwell wasn’t having it and pulled out of the project altogether, taking the 2 weeks of footage with her. Of course, the Maysles regrouped and later returned without Radziwell. That Summer utilizes the entirety of the 4 missing reels, peppered with snippets from a late-in-life interview that Sophia Coppola conducted with Radziwell. Olsson bookends the film with Beard’s recollection of that fateful summer. Beard also shares photographs and footage taken while he and Radziwell stayed at Andy Warhol’s Montauk compound. Warhol even shot some of it himself.

It’s possible That Summer will serve as a gateway into the world of the Beales. But the film is mostly for the longtime fans. Essentially, it’s the Grey Gardens demos. To see the Edies interacting with their starkly prosperous niece/cousin brings a nice bit of insight into their standing with the rest of the family. Better still, we get more of Little Edie singing, dancing, changing costumes, and making plans to follow her stage dreams in New York City.

And of course, there are the cats. Cats infest Grey Gardens like stoic vermin, lounging on piles of newspapers and windowsills, stalking the overgrown garden, and co-habituating with the local raccoons. Little Edie has given them all names (including the raccoons). She gleefully notes the familial resemblance of one particular orange tabby she dubbed Tedsy (sic) Kennedy. Another classic Little Edie moment occurs when Big Edie asks her rummaging daughter what she’s looking for. “What I’m always looking for,” Edie responds. “My eyeliner or my pants!”

Some have accused the Maysles of exploiting the Beales. And maybe in some ways they were. At one point in That Summer, Little Edie comments that, “[To] dig up the past I think is about the most cruel thing anybody can do. Because you always find some awful blot. Or something that will embarrass someone.” But they were also giving these women a voice.

Edie frequently mentions going to the Big Apple like a Chekov character longing for Moscow. “You’ll never go to New York,” Big Edie tells her all-singing, all-dancing offspring. But Big Edie was wrong. At the age of 60, Little Edie scored an 8-night residency in Greenwich Village club called Reno Sweeney. Despite her limitations, she never gave up on her showbiz dreams. She was never a star, but she did manage to prove her mother (and the rest of the family) wrong. I consider that a happy ending.

– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)

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