The 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” portrayed mother and daughter Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, onetime denizens of high society, negotiating daily life in their East Hampton mansion (from which the film derives its title) under circumstances severely reduced from those they enjoyed in their heyday.
This near-tragedy of neglect is leavened by the eccentric charm of its central figures. The film captures them enacting a possibly willful pantomime of gracious living while practically ankle-deep in squalor. The fact that this pair were the aunt and cousin of the former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and her sister, the socialite Lee Radziwill, added to their peculiar mystique.
The metaphoric implications of the spectacle presented in “Grey Gardens” were not lost among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of the time, who made the movie an instant classic. The Beales became figures of mordant fun but also cultural touchstones.
“That Summer,” a new documentary directed by Goran Hugo Olsson, sheds further light on the Beales with footage shot before the making of “Grey Gardens.” The photographer Peter Beard, whose camera appreciated both the wilds of Africa and the supermodels and superstars of the 1960s and ’70s, opens the film from his Montauk home. Now 80, he pages through a coffee-table book of his own photography and reminisces.
Eventually he describes a project he undertook with his friend Ms. Radziwill, an “environmental film” about the Hamptons. Ms. Radziwill, in voice-over, recalls her notion to enlist her “extremely eccentric aunt” — that would be Big Edie — to “be the narrator for my memories.”
In the summer of 1972 Mr. Beard and Ms. Radziwill hired a film crew — which included Albert Maysles, one of the future directors of “Grey Gardens” — and embarked to the Beales’ estate. Most of this film is devoted to four reels shot there, in which the Beales’ living conditions are worse than what’s depicted in the 1975 film. At one point there’s a debate as to what food they gave to the raccoons living on the grounds caused said raccoons to fall sick.
Little Edie, who after her mother died developed a nightclub act, regales a cameraperson and Ms. Radziwill with a rendition of the obscure ’40s pop song “My Adobe Hacienda.” Of the modernization and cleanup for Grey Gardens proposed by Mrs. Onassis, Little Edie says, “I think it’s very cute of Jackie to try and bring us up-to-date.” Mr. Beard and Ms. Radziwill eventually abandoned the project, but Albert Maysles and his brother, David, determined to revisit the Beales shortly after.
Mr. Beard’s view of the Beales in this period is possibly unique. “I never thought of the Beales as unfortunate or sad or anything except very excellent at feeling what it was like to hold on to the past,” he says.
The movie ends with the aged Mr. Beard (who is also an executive producer of this movie) in his home studio, and the strong implication that he is feeling the same.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.