Although technically a prequel of sorts to the Maysles brothers’ landmark documentary Grey Gardens—about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric, stuck-in-a-dream-world family members Big Edie and Little Edie Beale—That Summer feels more a like a footnote to that groundbreaking profile of how excess leads to a brand of harmless insanity. Primarily built around four reels of long-shelved canisters of film capturing a few days in the life of the mother and daughter pair at a time when Lee Radziwill (Jackie’s sister and the former Princess Caroline) and her friend, photographer Peter Beard, were going to make a film about the mother and daughter, with a crew that included the Maysles as hired hands.
As our guide and narrator through this period, Beard also supplies some context for the footage by discussing via narration the scene in the summer of 1972 in Montauk, including such revelers as Truman Capote, Andy Warhol (and members of his crew from The Factory), Mick and Bianca Jagger, and various members of the Kennedy clan. But once the action shifts to the Beales’ crumbling East Hampton property, it becomes clear that this is a key moment for Big and Little Edie because local health inspectors and building code enforcers want to kick them out before the structure falls down around them. Thanks to some well-timed Onassis cash, renovation is fully under way, and the place is somewhat presentable by the end of the fourth reel.
That Summer is more a well-edited curiosity than a fully realized documentary, but in this case, it works because the subjects are so captivating and bizarre. There’s a subtext between the Edies that begins here and carries over in Grey Gardens that is heartbreaking and feels like the residue of a forgotten era, with Big Edie hounding Little Edie about her makeup and generally being presentable in front of company—a berating that concludes with Little Edie in bed hiding under the covers. Much like Grey Gardens, this work sends us on an emotional journey that alternates between laughing at the outrageous behavior to uncomfortable moments when the real world forces its way into their home and forces them to deal with the eccentric way they live.
The peripheral material about Montauk is equally interesting, especially seeing Andy Warhol being somewhat relaxed and normal in a beach setting, taking photos and generally relaxing. Beard flips through a series of photos—some candid, some posed—he took during that period, and we begin to piece together a timeline and narrative about the lifestyles of the rich and famous that feels as familiar to us as life on Mars. Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson pulls everything together admirably, and die-hard Grey Gardens fans will appreciate any new footage of their singing and screeching heroines, but for those who haven’t seen the classic doc, they may wonder why they should care about this family on the fringe.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.