May 22, 2018
The 44th Seattle International Film Festival:The Beales Before the Maysles in That Summer (2017)
The documentary That Summer (2017), which I viewed last night at a SIFF screening at the Ark Lodge Cinema, has been called the “Prequel to Grey Gardens,” because it features footage of Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the mother and daughter captured before that famous 1975 Maysles brothers film, in 1972, years before production. In a project conceived by Lee Radziwill, cousin and niece to the Edies, and the photographer and collage artist Peter Beard, the women were to play a role in a documentary the pair planned to make about the effect development had on the environment in the Hamptons.
After capturing hours of footage at the Beales’ home, the project died for reasons unknown and the film was put into storage. Now that film has been edited into this free form documentary,in which Radziwill and Beard also provide insight about what they filmed and what it was like to spend time with the Edies.
It is a less expertly crafted film than Grey Gardens, but in a way more revealing and compassionate. While the Maysles concentrated on the Beales, here you are given a more detailed view of the decay of Grey Gardens and efforts to restore it somewhat. As Radziwill discusses plumbing and electrical wiring with contractors, Little Edie flits around the edges. You wonder if reality has punctured her bubble of fantasy when it appears a bit of humiliation flickers across her face. She explains that she has done the best she can to manage, that the garbage piled up because the trucks would not come to pick it up.
It is also more clear how much Big Edie controlled her daughter, and how, despite her love for her mother, Little Edie resented her imprisonment as her caretaker. This magnetic and attractive woman could likely have escaped in marriage in her early years, but clearly prefers full independence with a side of romance, which was not an option.
Though Little Edies’ dissatisfaction is clear, Beard chooses not to see it, revering the women as brilliant creators of their own world. While this is true of Little Edie as a matter of survival, it is clearly not the life she desires. From his perspective they are both happy. Though it is hard to be sure, it seems Radziwill also sees both the women as living how they choose. That they cannot see this woman’s depression and her unmet desires is frustrating.
That said, Radziwill is for the most part appears to be an entrancing and compassionate woman. She loves and respects her aunt and cousin, accepting them for who they are completely. Garbed in immaculate, expensive, and highly inappropriate ensembles for overseeing remodeling, she is polite and refined, but never stuffy. Her genuine warmth, and the funds she was able to secure from brother-in-law Aristotle Onassis, are the reason the Beales were able to stay in their home and made to feel they belonged, at least to a degree.
That Summer succeeds on the strength of the remarkable people it features. It isn’t well constructed; the clips of the Beales are presented unedited, essentially padded with the home movies and musings of Beard and Radziwill (he in brief vignettes that bookend the film and audio clips, she via the audio from a 2013 interview with Sofia Coppola) so that the film is barely feature length. As entrancing as the Edies can be, there are moments when their bickering becomes repetitive and tiresome, the footage would have benefited from an edit.
Grey Gardens fans will love this film though, flaws and all. It takes the viewer deeper into the Beales’ world and expands it to people only referenced in the Maysles documentary. Those not familiar with these eccentric East Hampton outcasts are likely to find it less compelling and even a bit confusing, if maybe somewhat dazzling because of cameo appearances of Radziwill’s and Beard’s social circle including Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Bianca Jagger.
The film will show once more at SIFF on Tuesday, May 28 at 6:30 PM at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.