In terms of Great American Mysteries, the story of the Beales ranks up there with Lindbergh’s baby or the Black Dahlia. Why and how, exactly, did ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’ Beale, the mother-daughter duo, lock themselves inside their decrepit mansion in the East Hamptons for decades, slowly accumulating the oppressive weight of squalor, rubbish, and hostility from wealthy neighbours?
Brothers Albert and David Maysles were the first to shine a light on the pair in their seminal cinéma vérité film Grey Gardens, which has gone on to inspire an HBO drama and a Broadway musical. The two Edies have become a cultural touchstone, not only for what they said – Little Edie: “I only care about three things: singing, dancing, and the Catholic church” – but for what they represented. As all romantics know, there is beauty found in ruins.
That Summer, a documentary from Swedish director Göran Olsson, helps to fill in some of the gaps left by the original film, making it a must-see for any Beale enthusiasts. Like his earlier film, Concerning Violence, the work consists mainly of found footage – the majority from the Maysles, along with some from Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas. The film provides an invaluable insight into the development of Grey Gardens: Peter Beard, artist and friend of socialite Lee Radziwill (herself the sister of Jackie Kennedy) hired the Maysles to shoot footage of the redevelopment of the Grey Gardens estate, and the two eccentrics at its centre. The film was eventually scrapped, although the Maysles obviously returned to shoot their masterpiece – with or without the consent of Beard or Radziwill, it’s never made clear.
That Summer presents us with the four extant reels of film from that early project, giving us a peek behind the curtain of the mansion. Unfortunately, we are forced to sit through a sequence of Beard pontificating on his celebrity connections before we are able to get to experience the grainy majesty of the reels.
As with the Maysles, Olsson allows the Beales to speak for themselves, uttering lines that are innately brilliant, by turns hilarious, poignant, and beautiful – they are a scriptwriter’s dream. While the reels run to little more than an hour in length, they provide a wonderful companion to the original film. Fans of Grey Gardens will delight in sequences that preempt its key themes – Racoons! Singing! Little Edie’s outfits! – but for every answer the film provides more questions are raised: were the Maysles being exploitative? Why did Little Edie allow herself to become a recluse? What’s with all the headscarves?
That Summer provides a long-overdue update on the iconic East Coast eccentrics; let us hope more footage is unearthed one day.
Dir: Göran Olsson. Starring: Peter Beard; Lee Radziwill; Edith Bouvier Beale; Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale. 80 minutes