The “Grey Gardens” mystique becomes even more intriguing with “That Summer,” a prequel of sorts to the famed Maysles film that fills in background information while furthering the hagiographic cult surrounding Big and Little Edie. Almost exclusively composed of 16mm footage shot in 1972 and lost until now, Göran Hugo Olsson’s fascinating documentary recounts the summer when Lee Radziwill and photographer Peter Beard decided to record Radziwill’s reclusive aunt and first cousin, hiring the Maysles and shooting in and around Grey Gardens while workers fixed the place up — yes, it’s hard to believe, but the house was in even worse shape before the 1975 documentary. Given the two Edies’ large fan base and the iconic status of the earlier film, “That Summer” is certain to make a big splash on art-house screens and streaming sites.
Back in 1972, Beard and Radziwill had the idea of making a documentary about the rapid vulgarization of East Hampton, Long Island, but then realized that the story really needing urgent recording was happening in Grey Gardens. No one had been inside the house apart from its occupants for five years, and it took weeks for Radziwill, daughter of Edith Ewing Bouvier’s brother Jack (and of course sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) to convince her relatives to allow the Maysles to film in and around the grounds.
It was just around this time that the Suffolk County authorities were threatening to evict the women. Backed by Aristotle Onassis’ money, Lee hired handymen to fix up the mansion, ensuring that the plumbing and electricity finally worked and doing what was possible to clean walls blackened by mold and Lord knows what else. As for the piles of garbage and cat droppings, the less said, the better.
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Thanks to the original documentary, the 2006 Broadway musical, and the 2009 HBO movie, the mythologies surrounding the house and its occupants remain potent, feeding a legion of books, articles, and fan sites. In many, Radziwill and Onassis are painted as upper-crust dilettantes who brought the Maysles in only to have Lee confiscate the ’72 footage because she wasn’t happy with where things were going. Olsson doesn’t directly address these claims, instead allowing Beard’s recollections and films from that summer, some shot on Super-8 by Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol, to counter the idea of a haughty aristocrat exploiting her relatives. Radziwill comes across as a warm, solicitous protector treating the Beales’ eccentricities with gracious respect. Radiantly beautiful with that soft, mellifluous Bouvier voice, Radziwill is here seen as the savior of the house, sparing her aunt and cousin from certain eviction.
Some of the current anti-Radziwill chatter surely comes from Little Edie’s bad-mouthing of her cousin, but Little Edie would trash anyone who took away her spotlight. An egomaniac of admirable creativity, she was stifled by Big Edie’s need for control, but her craving for the limelight bulldozed her glamorous cousin’s generosity. “I care a certain way about everything” declares Little Edie, clearly reveling in being filmed as she searches for her make-up, talks about the armies of cats, and obsesses about leaving for Manhattan. In audio from Sofia Coppola’s 2013 interview, Radziwill argues that Little Edie was “almost as eccentric” as Big Edie, though in truth the mother always seemed more self-aware than her daughter.
True to the original spirit of the project, Olsson retains just enough material about East Hampton to expand the sense of nostalgia to more than just one captivatingly mad family in a decrepit mansion. Beard, a famed photographer, collagist and darling of the beau monde, is the sort of engaging chronicler who unselfconsciously talks of Andy, Truman, Mick and Bianca, evoking a privileged lost world where wealth and art played together in a dance of mutual respect.
As with “Grey Gardens,” much remains unspoken: Big Edie’s two sons are never mentioned, the women’s direct relationship with the locals is passed over, and how they get their groceries is a mystery. Perhaps including such things would have shifted the focus too much, getting away from the essential, fractured storybook of an American dream of privilege turned into a bizarre tale of mother-daughter interdependence, played out by two women with personalities too big to be contained in one rambling house. Underlying the delirious unconventionality, long the privilege of the upper classes, is a palpable streak of melancholy, perfectly captured in the words of Kurt Weill’s “September Song” — sung in duet by Lee and Big Edie (and in the end credits by Eartha Kitt): “And the days dwindle down / To a precious few… / And these few precious days / I’d spend with you.”