Documentary Review: ‘That Summer’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Göran Hugo Olsson’s documentary serves as a kind of prequel to Grey Gardens. Comprised almost entirely of footage from the summer of 1972, when Lee Radziwill (sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and photographer Peter Beard spent the season in East Hampton. Radziwill hired filmmakers Albert and David Maysles to accompany them and, ultimately, document her relatives’ lives while their estate was cleaned and partially renovated. That footage later formed the famous 1975 documentary; That Summer features excerpts of four previously unused reels of film, providing yet more insight into the strange, reclusive existence of Big and Little Edie.

Big Edie states that no one other than she and her daughter had entered the home in five years when Radziwill and the film crew arrive. The women were on the verge of eviction at that time. Earlier, the local fire department had broken in and hosed down much of the home’s interior, apparently in a bid to force them out. Black mold crawls up most walls and dusty flotsam covers nearly every available surface. To an outsider it looks like a miserable existence, yet both Edies drift about seemingly oblivious to the decay.

In a successful attempt to keep her aunt and cousin from being turned out, Radziwill oversees improvements to the house’s electricity and plumbing (funded by Aristotle Onassis, Jackie’s husband), as well as clearing away enough of the debris to make Grey Gardens (somewhat) more livable. Much of the footage stands on its own, although Beard’s voice occasionally comes in to give a keener sense of what it was like to visit the Beales that summer. Both women certainly come across as eccentrics, although in these particular reels it is Little Edie who seems more desperate, hungrier for the camera’s attention. Her mother, by comparison, appears largely unaffected by its presence.

Beard idealizes his time spent at Grey Gardens, speaking fondly of the warm, friendly atmosphere and the way one could wander about talking to one of the multitude of cats that roamed the property. In present-day segments that bookend the Maysles’ footage, he reminisces about what carefree fun they all had, even mentioning how Andy Warhol and other members of the Factory loved their time on the island. At one point he says, “It was a dream world. And that was okay.” Except it’s difficult to see past the squalor of the home: a cellar full of empty cat food tins, dilapidated furniture, and trash bags strewn around the yard.

If you subscribe to the cult of personality surrounding Big and Little Edie, this will no doubt captivate. However, there’s something very sad that hangs over the footage, like you’re watching a memorial to an ancient and extinct civilization. There is very little to admire in the Beales’ circumstances but perhaps, for some, there is something that enthralls nonetheless.

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