“The Maysles wisely opted to not allow in any external, objective information about what truly happened to bring the Edies to their present state,” I wrote in my review of Grey Gardens, calling it “one of the greatest and possibly only disaster movies that clearly benefits from not having seen the moments of reaping.” How could a blue-blooded mother and daughter have gone from high-society debutantes to feeding cats and raccoons in the attic? It's a question that nearly every subsequent adaptation of the Beales' life stories has presumed to answer. Neither the musical adaptation nor the HBO film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange could help but load audiences into the time machine to give them the elusive “before” that the 1975 documentary's “after” left entirely in the Beales' implicitly unreliable hands.
Which is what makes Göran Olsson's rescued-footage doc That Summer all the more valuable as a piece of the ever-expanding Grey Gardens canon. The only explanation it offers is how the Maysles brothers came to decide on making their original film in the first place. And the answer to that, of course, is: “How could they resist?” In the early '70s, Jacqueline Kennedy's sister, Lee Radziwill, hired the Maysles to help film a documentary about her father, John Vernou “Black Jack” Bouvier III. To tell his story, she deigned to interview his sister, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and niece, Edith Bouvier Beale, otherwise known as Big and Little Edie. That documentary fell through, but the Maysles soon turned their fascination with the bickering pair into their own next project. The prologue-like This Summer's new footage shows the Beales amid their cousins' attempts to save the Grey Gardens estate from its fallen state.
The makers of this rescued-footage documentary ultimately understand the power of its subjects’ personalities.
“I've been here since I was 17 and I have certain feelings about every piece of furniture in the house,” Little Edie hisses as Lee guides camera crews through the very much dilapidated wings of Grey Gardens. Watching the new footage, one may be struck by just how much less flighty and flirtatiously Little Edie carries herself. Anyone who's seen the feature-length deleted-scenes compilation The Beales of Grey Gardens knows that she was nursing a pretty intense crush on David Maysles, and whether or not that played a factor in how she welcomed his camera into her home and paid no mind to the destruction around her, that level of calculated performance is far less prominent in That Summer. Here, already under the scarves and kerchiefs that hid her alopecia, Little Edie seems more conspicuously embarrassed by what her life has become. Similarly, she demonstrates as much a lack of patience for her cousin Lee as she does for her mother in the 1975 documentary, contemplating what will happen to her if she spends one more winter in the Hamptons, where they can “get you” for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.
Lee is shown as a helpful lifeline, inquiring about, for instance, how much more damage the raccoons can be expected to do to the roof, though it's worth mentioning that the footage on display here was commissioned by her. Similarly, the biggest thematic misstep made by This Summer is in framing everything within the societal who's who of notables like Peter Beard, Andy Warhol, and Jonas Mekas, which regrettably underlines the freak-show undercurrent of Big and Little Edie's fall from grace. Still, the film's makers ultimately understand the power of its subjects' personalities, and even offer up a collective mea culpa to the both of them when it highlights Little Edie musing: “I think it's very cruel to bring up the past. Awful. To dig up the past I think is about the most cruel thing anyone can do. Because you always find some awful blot, you know, or something that will embarrass someone.”