That Summer Review: Illuminating New Areas of Grey Gardens

Cobbled from footage of a pre-Grey Gardens attempt to tell the tale of Big Edie and Little Edie, this documentary offers scintillating new footage of the Beales, but offers little new insight.

Few things fire the imagination of a cinephiles quite like hearing that a film you love could have had a different director. We ponder on how a different creative team would effect a film, speculating on what they would put their focus on, how they would structure the film, and if the tone of the film would be a complete departure from the one we know. Usually, we don’t have much more than a script and some concept art to go on- leaving the abandoned project a complete mystery.

But sometimes we get lucky, and find footage of a film that we thought was lost, turning a hypothetical into reality. That Summer is an alternative version of Grey Gardens, created from footage from an earlier project. It attempts to show a new side of the Beales of Grey Gardens, but fails to capture of the magic of the iconic documentary.

In 1972, Photographer Peter Beard and Socialite Lee Radziwell begun shooting for a documentary about the changing demographic of the Hamptons, with a specific focus on Radziwell’s aunt and cousin: Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edie Bouvier Beale (Big Edie and Little Edie respectively). After a shooting four reels of footage, the project was scrapped. A year later, two cameramen from the project, Albert and David Maysles, returned to the Hamptons to film their own documentary, Grey Gardens, while the footage from Beard’s project stayed shelved for 45 years. In 2017, filmmaker Goran Olsson used the scrapped footage to make a prequel of sorts to the Maysles’ iconic film.

What sets this film apart from the Maysles’ Grey Gardens is its focus on the restoration of Grey Gardens itself. Prior to shooting, the Beales had many complaints filed against them due to the dilapidated state of their mansion, as well as the multiple cats and raccoons living with them. Facing eviction, the two women were saved when Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis paid for the house to be cleaned and fitted with heating and plumbing. This should be a major source of conflict, but while it’s obvious that the Edies are frustrated at the invasion of their home, very little of it is on screen; the only time it’s mentioned explicitly is Little Edie talking about a confrontation she had with Jacqueline over hosing down the house. This turns what should be the focal point of the film into just an aside that doesn’t add as much drama to the film as it should.

While the new material is nice, there just isn’t enough meat there to flesh out the doc and its subjects in the ways one would like. Beard had only shot four reels of film, equaling about an hour of footage for Olsson to work with. As such, there isn’t much editing of the footage; Olsson seems content to play it as is, with Beard and Radziwell narrating in between reels. To pad the run time, the 1972 footage is bookended with modern day footage of Beard in Montauk. Confusingly, the Beales aren’t mentioned at all for the first 15 minutes of the film, instead Olsson puts the focus on Beard reminiscing about how he spent his summers in the seventies with Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Lee Radziwell. While Olsson tries to tie this thematically with the Beales’ obsession with their past, and draw parallels of Montauk’s current gentrification with the Hamptons’ gentrification in the 70s, it really just feels like unrelated padding.

While it makes sense that Olsson would want to introduce Beard and Radziwell to audience members who might not know who they are, it’s a missed opportunity that they don’t really talk about the project itself, other than why they made it and what they thought about working with the Edies. Most tellingly, they don’t discuss why the project was never completed. As such, the film lacks focus; the documentary plodding along aimlessly without narrative arc from either the 1972 or modern footage, and without enough footage of the Beales to transport the viewer to Grey Gardens to make either segment compelling.

That isn’t to say that the film has nothing interesting about it. The Beales are still the eccentric and engaging women they were in Grey Gardens. Most notable is Little Edie, who is filled with anger through much of the film, obviously upset over being harassed by city council over the state of her house. Her frustration culminates in what is the best scene in the film: after complaining that their lawyer, who had been at the house the entire day before, wasn’t there today, Little Edie takes Lee to a shed in the garden, and then signs the song “My Adobe Hacienda”. She sings wildly, her face veering close to the camera, almost as if challenging the cameraman. It’s a scene that is both absurd, and vaguely threatening, and what the film needed much more of.

That Summer will probably only appeal to die-hard fans of Grey Gardens. While there are some fun moments, the film doesn’t have any interest in going behind the scenes of Beard and Radziwell’s failed project, and it doesn’t have enough footage to be a compelling documentary in its own right, making the film rather pointless. While it’s wonderful that we can see more of the Beales, it would have made more sense for this to be a featurette for a Grey Gardens Blu-Ray, rather than a theatrical release in its own right.

That Summer is currently out on limited release in select theaters from IFC Films.

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About Marshall Estes

Marshall Estes is a Chicago-based film critic and contributor to Alcohollywood. He is also one half of the defunct Youtube criticism series Twin Cinema, along with fellow Alcohollywood contributor Theo Estes.

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