Film Review: That Summer

Grey Gardens freaks rejoice! Big and Little Edie Beale refuse to die and are back again, happily arguing and shriek-singing away in Peter Beard’s elegiac found footage.
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The Maysles Brothers film Grey Gardens has had perhaps the most extraordinary afterlife of any documentary since its release as an instant cult classic in 1975. It was made into a sprightly, Tony-award winning musical in 2006, as well as a TV film with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore in 2009, and it even spawned a sequel consisting of unused footage from the original shoot, The Beales of Grey Gardens, released in 2006.

And now, here comes another look at the two Edie Beales, Big and Little, the mother/daughter relations of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who lived the ultimate co-dependent madness in a crumbling Easthampton mansion with dozens of cats and raccoons. That Summer is actually comprised of four reels of footage shot in 1972 and lost for 45 years that were the original seed for the Mayles doc, before the project was abandoned by its creators, artist/photographer/wildlife conservationist Peter Beard and Lee Radziwell, his one-time lover, also related to the Beales. Initially, Radziwell, Jackie O’s sister, wanted it to be a recollection of her family, as Big Edie was the sister of her father, the notoriously handsome and notorious “Black Jack” Bouvier, and Beard, who has lived in the nearby once-quiet fishing village of Montauk most of his life, wanted it also to be a portrait of the changing rustic Hamptons townships of Long Island that became, as he says, “Cashampton.” After their project was shelved, the Maysles, realizing that these two women and their spectacularly decrepit abode were pure cinematic gold, took it upon themselves to return to Grey Gardens and make their masterpiece.

“Elegiac” would seem to be the best description of the film, for, as narrated by Beard, it is a rich, deeply nostalgic look back at one particular world of the 1970s—his world—populated by then living legends. Besides the Beales and Radziwell, other boldface names who appear in a brief preface about Beard and how he, more known for his African adventures (chasing down elephants and discovering supermodel Iman, whom he brought to New York and made an instant star by fibbing that she was found herding goats when she was in reality a university student), became involved in this world include Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Isak Dinesen, Francis Bacon and Mick and Bianca Jagger. (Even Jackie and her tragic son, John F. Kennedy Jr., make brief appearances.) They all seemed to party at—where else?—Studio 54. For anyone who lived in New York City then, it was indeed a heady time, for although the city was supposedly going down the toilet, it nevertheless had a special frisson of feverish creativity and hedonism, born from the Women’s and Gay Liberation movements, the Pill and the birth of disco, filled with larger-than-life personalities. 

Once the autobiographical preface is over—and I wish it had been longer, for Beard’s life is fascinating—the mesdames take over and the movie becomes an obvious test run for the Maysles doc. The two women ply their roles as wannabe musical diva mom and frustrated spinster daughter, who could never quite bring herself to leave and make a life of her own, instead reveling in the bizarre and bizarrely dressed persona she developed as a defense mechanism against a controlling, very center-stage mother. They bicker incessantly, and while that might be excruciating to experience in real life, on the screen it is often screamingly funny. Little Edie, who, ironically, with her tacked- and tied-together ragbag couture has proved the inspiration for a generation of fashion designers in the last 20 years, is in particularly rare form, crooning a ridiculous ditty, “My Adobe Hacienda,” to her miraculously patient cousin.

Radziwell appears a lot, and that’s blessing, for her ingratiating calmness and elegance are a positive balm after all the explosive outbursts of her strident relatives. As always with the Beales, there is music: French-proud Big Edie warble the charming chanson “Parlez moi d’amour,” while the movie ends on a grace note (however flat) with mother and daughter crooning the highly apt “September Song.”

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