Once upon a time, Grey Gardens was like a dark, tantalizing secret shared among friends. It's not that the filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, Gimme Shelter), were unknown, or that their subjects, Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, weren't of historical interest, but there was a certain air of disrepute to the whole affair. Unlike their other direct-cinema documentaries, Grey Gardens, which depicts lives of distressing squalor and fantastical delusion, plays more like a movie intended for drive-ins and grindhouses.
Since 1975, however, the film has become respectable—a camp classic, a black comedy, and an inspiration-generator for fashion designers. It's also joined the Library of Congress and the Criterion Collection and spawned a play, a musical, a spoof, a made-for-cable movie, and a sequel constructed by Albert after his brother's passing. Now Göran Hugo Olsson (The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975) has unearthed the Beales' first go-round with the star-making machinery through 16mm footage directed by Peter Beard in 1972 plus material from Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol. It's called That Summer. In their narration, Beard and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy Onassis's sister) recall their attempt to make a film about the East Hampton of the Bouviers' youth.
Instead of a full-fledged film, however, Olsson's documentary feels more like a prologue and an epilogue rolled into one. When Beard and Radziwill abandoned the project, the Maysles took over. If there's nothing especially necessary about That Summer, those who can't get enough of the Beales are likely to feel as if they've discovered a long-lost family photo album. As the now 80-year-old Beard concludes wistfully, "They were in a dream world, and it was okay."
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