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From cult faves to the subjects of a Broadway musical and starry HBO movie, Big Edie and Little Edie, the kin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who lived in scandalous bohemian squalor in an oceanfront East Hampton estate, have become indelible pop-culture figures. But even if you’re the completist who’s seen the 2006 follow-up to the 1975 documentary classic Grey Gardens, you’ve never seen the mother-daughter duo quite as they’re revealed in That Summer.
Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson, whose masterful touch with found footage made The Black Power Mix Tape 1967–1975 a potent historical chronicle, again delves into the vaults, with engrossing results. But his new doc is a time capsule of a very different sort. The film’s title refers to the summer of 1972, when photographer/artist Peter Beard and his friend Lee Radziwill, Jackie O’s younger sibling, began working on a film about the sisters’ childhood in the Hamptons.
Another set of siblings, Albert and David Maysles, were hired as crewmembers. Their interest in making Radziwill’s eccentric cousin and aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, the focus of the film reportedly provoked Radziwill to pull the plug on the project. The Maysles would return to realize their vision with Grey Gardens, while four reels from the original shoot at the crumbling mansion would go missing for 45 years.
That lost-and-found material, shot primarily by Beard, has been deftly excerpted by Olsson and his co-editor, Per K. Kirkegaard, enhanced with contemporaneous footage shot by Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Vincent Fremont and bookended with present-day sequences of Beard. While the Maysles‘ acclaimed film makes their affection for their subjects evident, there’s a certain performative quality to the proceedings. That Summer offers a new level of intimacy as well as a wider view, with Beard’s commentary lending compelling context. Above all, the loving interactions between the socialite and the shut-ins has a tender, down-to-earth poignancy. What was to be a memory piece for Radziwill has been crafted into a memory piece about nostalgia itself.
Whatever her feelings about the Maysles‘ film, Radziwill participates in Olsson’s, if indirectly, by agreeing to let Olsson use audio from a 2013 interview she did with Sofia Coppola. Between her recollections and Beard’s new voiceover — both judiciously used — their mutual adoration couldn’t be clearer. Nor could the delight he derived from spending time with the Edies in their cluttered, moldering home, its interiors captured hauntingly in his B&W photos. Beard seems to have found them at least as interesting as his beautiful-people friends like Mick and Bianca or his occasional collaborators in Warhol’s Factory scene, seen in vintage footage aiming cameras at one another like kids with new toys.
The effortlessly elegant Radziwill is at ease with East Hampton building inspectors, plumbers and electricians as she oversees repairs (financed by her brother-in-law Aristotle Onassis) that keep her aunt and cousin from being evicted but don’t necessarily sit well with them, especially because they’re still traumatized from “raids” in which the fire department turned its hoses on the inside of their home. Along with high-powered attorney William vanden Heuvel, Radziwill is a protective intermediary between her relatives and the authorities. And she’s a sympathetic interviewer, listening to the Edies‘ complaints and drawing out neighbors about her father and the far less populated Hamptons of her youth.
Those eager for new helpings of Little Edie’s quotable humor and campy theatricality won’t be disappointed. Her frantic search for her makeup and a spirited and loopy rendition of the 1940s ditty “My Adobe Hacienda” are standout moments. But the desperate edge and frustrated showbiz aspirations are evident just beneath the extravagant surface. At one point she frantically vows that she’ll have to get a job in the fall. At another, she arranges herself carefully in a chair in the overgrown yard — nabbed on sale at Bloomingdale’s in 1949 — and then, claiming that no one but her has ever used the piece of furniture, calls it “the disappointed chair.”
When she deplores the “cruelty” of bringing up the past, it’s achingly clear that she’s speaking as someone who’s been trapped in the past in order to take care of her mother — “I’ll never feel right in this place,” she says. Olsson’s film, like the house itself, is filled with ghosts. Besides the Beales, there are Warhol, Truman Capote, Jacqueline Onassis and the cousins John Kennedy Jr. and Anthony Radziwill, who died within weeks of each other in 1999 and are seen visiting the estate as young teens. For all the high-society otherworldliness, the family threads are utterly relatable — in the way the Bouviers accommodate one another and enjoy one another’s company, as well as in the underlying sadness.
Some have noted that a particular exchange between mother and daughter might hint at especially dark family secrets. Responding to an ultra-dramatic statement by Little Edie, Big Edie uses the word “incest” with alarming quickness. If she’s being honest rather than simply irreverent, the truth seems more likely to reflect on her own experience than her daughter’s. In her entertaining way, she’s a daunting master at deflecting and controlling.
After several attempts, Radziwill gets her aunt to sing the elegiac “September Song,” and that sense of a bright moment and its inevitable fading is what comes across most strongly in That Summer. The final sequence finds Beard, in his Montauk home, not far from Grey Gardens, still making art. There’s something celebratory in that, even as he laments how fast-paced and commercialized and overdeveloped the world has become in the four decades since he met the Beales. He minces no words when expressing his contempt for the prying, judgmental “little people” who sought to demonize the Beales rather than help them. As Beard puts it, and as Olsson’s film captures incisively and with heart, “They were in a dream world. And it was OK.”
Production companies: Story, Thunderbolt Ranch, Louverture Films, Final Cut for Real
With: Peter Beard, Lee Radziwill, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, Edith Bouvier Beale, Andy Warhol
Director: Göran Hugo Olsson
Producers: Joslyn Barnes, Tobias Janson, Nejma Beard, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Executive producers: Peter Beard, Andrea Barron, Susan Rockefeller, Danny Glover, Tony Tabatznik
Based on footage directed by: Peter Beard, Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol
Additional cinematography by: Albert Maysles, Vincent Fremont
Editors: Per K. Kirkegaard, Göran Hugo Olsson
Composers: Goran Kajfeš, David Österberg
Venue: Telluride Film Festival (Backlot)
Sales: Cinetic Media, Dogwoof
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