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They’re back! For fans of the classic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, this film is a startling, even sensational event. Despite some faults, it is basically a must-see, an archival gem with mouthwatering unseen footage of the two women who were turned by that film into pop-culture legends. It throws real light on them, and on the silent cunning of the Maysles brothers themselves, with a Greeneian splinter of ice in their hearts.
That Summer is effectively a backstory-prequel to the making of Grey Gardens, which famously unveiled the tragicomic twilit existence of two eccentric American women of faded patrician glamour in their rambling chaotic home in the Hamptons. They were the elder Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale and her skittish and madly eccentric daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, who had lived together there for over 30 years in bizarre seclusion, after Big Edie’s husband left her, each like something between Blanche Dubois and Miss Havisham. Their niece Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Onassis, tactfully wanted to help the Edies restore Grey Gardens, evidently with Ari Onassis’s money.
But how did the Maysles brothers gain the women’s trust to make their documentary? The answer is that there was an earlier film project, begun and then abandoned in the summer of 1972, masterminded by the well-connected artist and photographer Peter Beard – an intimate of Hampton habitués such as Lee and Jackie, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. He got permission to make a fly-on-the-wall study of poor Big Edie and Little Edie and hired the Maysles brothers as humble cameramen. (We have to listen to a lot of irrelevant waffle from Beard about his famous friends before we can get on to the main event: his footage and the women’s show-stopping double act.)
He finally shelved his project, but the Maysles came back and evidently asked permission to make their own film – and the women were sufficiently accustomed to their presence to agree. Or did the sly film-makers allow these befuddled women to assume that this was simply an extension of the first film, the one licensed by their grand family friend? We don’t know. But the Maysles’ film was much colder, shrewder and more pitilessly brilliant than anything Beard had in mind, with his emollient emphasis on fixing up the house, and all the local history.
Yet the women are still extraordinary, speaking lines no screenwriter would dare invent: lines that are funny, petulant, crazy, melancholy and sometimes just plain gibberish. (I’d forgotten something from Grey Gardens: the Edies can be talking and two or three sentences can go past before you realise it’s as incomprehensible as birdsong!)
But why did Beard abandon his film? He doesn’t say. It was reportedly because he had to return to Africa, but I wonder if he may have been nervous of what his film uncovered – a suggestion of abuse. Is that the answer to why this poor, bewildered, humorous and yet defiant Little Edie retreated into seclusion along with her cantankerous, guilty mother? No one who loves Grey Gardens can do without this.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: That Summer review – must-see doc revisits Grey Gardens mother-daughter act | Documentary films