There are a few ways to think about Edith Bouvier Beale, the fallen ’30 debutante–turned–head-scarf-wearing aristocratic freak who became a cult figure in “Grey Gardens,” the 1975 Maysles brothers documentary that’s now regarded as a vérité classic. When you first see “Little Edie,” she comes off as someone who, if she didn’t exist, John Waters would have had to invent. Swanning around in her too-bright lipstick and OCD kerchiefs (think Muslim head scarves designed by Coco Chanel), she’s a found-object character, a high-society fruitcake dropping breathy pensées that make her sound weirdly worldly and utterly around the bend. That’s why she’s a camp icon.
But how did she get that way? The astounding musical version of “Grey Gardens,” which premiered Off Broadway in 2006, dove deep into Edie’s past and came up with an interpretation of how, exactly, she wound up living with her ancient domineering mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, in a decaying manse in East Hampton, the two of them bound together like Laura and Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.” The musical told a story of crushed dreams, subjugated women, and the addictions of wealth. It was Tennessee Williams meets “Psycho,” as told by Edith Wharton with Sondheim harmonies.
So is there anything left to discover about the Beales? Anything, that is, that the two versions of “Grey Gardens” (plus the HBO movie, not to mention the terrific making-of-a-doc portrait “Ghosts of Grey Gardens”) didn’t show us?
The fascinating new documentary “That Summer” reveals that there is, although it’s not just a matter of what the original film left off-screen (or what got covered up). It’s also a matter of shifting perceptions. Just as a work of fiction can evolve and mutate over time, the people in “Grey Gardens” now look different — from how they did in 1975, or even in the late ’90s, when the film was first re-discovered and began to ascend to its current venerated cult status.
“That Summer” is a collection of footage, shot in 1972 and assembled here by the Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson (“The Black Power Mixtape”), that was originally commissioned by Lee Radziwill, the socialite sister of Jacqueline Onassis, and the niece and first cousin of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale. The film opens with Peter Beard, the collage artist and photographer, now 80, thumbing through a book of his ornate photographs of the time, taking us back to the dreamy rustic beach haven of Montauk, Long Island, in the early ’70s, when he was a wealthy and handsome artist hunk in his prime, hanging out with Jackie and Lee and Andy and Truman and Mick and Bianca. There’s home-movie footage of all of them, and we can taste the enticement of the days when the East Coast art elite made putting on airs into an intoxicating high style.
“That Summer,” from its title to its fine-grained 16mm images, makes you intensely nostalgic (even if you were never there), but the nostalgia, in an odd way, is used for propaganda purposes. It’s out to sell us on the notion that “Little Edie” Beale and her mother were less far gone than we think. What it winds up revealing, however, is that they were even more unhinged than we believed from watching “Grey Gardens.”
Radziwill first commissioned the footage because she wanted to make a documentary about East Hampton, with the Beales as part of the local scenery. But it was soon discovered that their house, which they had lived in for decades, was a dark, fetid, paint-peeling, abandoned wreck, full of critters and bags of cat shit. Suffolk County officials had already threatened the Beales with eviction, and with the Bouvier family name hanging in the balance, Aristotle Onassis agreed to fund a partial repair of the house. We see images of it before the work was completed (it looked like something out of “The Blair Witch Project”), and we meet a few of the workingmen who papered over the rot, but the upshot is: The squalor that we saw in “Grey Gardens” was the fake-orderly, cleaned-up version of that house. The real thing was more terrifying.
What’s scarier is that the Beales’ relatives don’t seem to understand the problem. In “That Summer,” Lee Radziwill is all warm family smiles, treating her relatives like the lovable eccentrics she obviously thought they were. And Little Edie certainly has her demented radiance. The footage in “That Summer” was shot one year before “Grey Gardens,” but already it’s clear that Edie, at 54, adores the camera, which she treats like her let’s-put-on-a-show bedroom mirror. This is a woman who was once, in the late ’40s, lined up as a potential wife for Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and now she’s a blitzed maiden aunt who suffers from the follicle-ripping compulsion known as tichotrillomania (hence the head scarves). “I can never find my pants or my makeup,” says Edie, summing up her flaked-out mind. Yet somewhere inside her, the dazzling deb still lives. She beams out at the world, even if that beam now serves to shut the world out.
When Lee Radziwill saw the footage that had been shot by David and Albert Maysles (among other filmmakers), she decided to scrap the whole project. But the Maysles brothers knew what they were onto. One year later, they went back to Grey Gardens and shot their own film, independent of the Beales’ famous relatives — and it is, truly, a haunting masterpiece of documentary immersion, and the birth of a certain is-it-voyeuristic-and-irresponsible-or-just-true? reality-as-entertainment impulse. “Grey Gardens” at once exploited the Beales, showed them astounding empathy, and provided a memorable platform for their mother-daughter mishegas. But what’s easier to see now is that both of them were deeply, seriously mentally ill.
You might say “Duh,” but the reason the Beales lived in their fancy rotting cat lair for decades is that the wealth of their clan created a haze of ambiguity around them. Surely, we thought, there must be some dignity to it all, some vestige of old WASP “character.” And that’s what “Grey Gardens” was about: Big Edie and Little Edie living off the fumes of their heritage. But what we see in “That Summer” is their friends and relatives enabling and protecting them, when what they should have done was closed the place down. Then again, if that had happened, we wouldn’t have “Grey Gardens,” a record of family calamity, spiritual tragedy, and luminous lunacy that still looks, in America, like privilege.