“Accidents are very important,” the artist Peter Beard says, perusing a book of his photographs and collages during the opening shots of “That Summer.” He’s referring to a double-exposed Polaroid of Andy Warhol, but the same applies to “That Summer,” not to mention its mammoth predecessor, “Grey Gardens.” Fans of the now-iconic 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles will recall the Beales, otherwise known as Big Edie and Little Edie, the outsized mother-daughter duo with ties to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Grey Gardens” does not bother with the precise nature of that relationship, nor does it make clear how the Maysles gained access to the Beales in the first place, despite having a friendly rapport with their subjects.
It should not be surprising, then, to learn that the idea to film the Beales of Grey Gardens came from none other than Lee Radziwill, niece to Big Edie and kid sister to Jackie O. Three years younger than Jackie, Radziwill is no less stunning or stylish. Even in crackling sepia-toned archival footage, her smile radiates and her relaxed Montauk look is effortlessly chic. Most fascinating to witness is how natural she is with both Edies, lovingly coaxing songs and anecdotes out of the bombastic duo. As she sits next to Big Edie in the sunshine, looking on affectionately and praising her singing, the resemblance is suddenly apparent. Simply hearing Radziwill say “Aunt Edie” changes the way we see the older woman; her warbling soprano sounds less plaintive as a memory to someone else.
After opening with Beard’s voiceover, the film later reveals the Montauk studio where the now-80-year-old artist still makes intricate collages, crouched on his knees. The same ink-stained thumb and strewn bits of paper appear in the 1972 footage, as well as the creative spirit and joie de vivre that Radziwill describes in her own voiceover. Beard is the person who drags Warhol out to Montauk, a funny and rare occurrence for those who knew him. The few choice shots of Warhol on the beach are a delight: Camera around his neck, a shock of white hair billowing under a beige bucket hat.
Jonas Mekas/IFC Films
The renovation of Grey Gardens, the Beales’ derelict country manor, is the summer’s unifying activity and the topic of much discussion around the house. The nieces led the charge equally, but Radziwill is the one seen negotiating with the contractors and keeping the town appeased. When two inspectors from the Board of Health stop by, Big Edie insists they admire her portrait. They’ve both seen it before, they say, the last time they were here. Little Edie whispers matter-of-factly to her mother: “They both lost weight. The Board of Health people, they both lost weight.”
Which brings us to the major selling point of “That Summer”: The witty zingers that made the world first fall in love with the Beales in “Grey Gardens.” While Big Edie was famous for her serenades, Little Edie always had the best one-liners. “The thing I’m always looking for. Either my pants or my make-up. Nobody wears pants nowadays,” she quips. Here she is teasing Beard about his picky eating: “You might be more charming if you put on 3 ounces.” Or speaking to spirits: “I made visual contact today. I pierced the veil.” Touring the overgrown grounds, Little Edie sinks into an armchair that has become one with the natural surroundings. “Nobody ever sat in it ever. Except me. So I call it ‘the disappointed chair.'”
Emerging as an engaging third character in the Beale saga, Radziwill has her own gags up her sleeve. “This Bouvier vanity reminds me of my father,” she jokes to Big Edie. The film, completed with footage once considered lost, was originally intended to be a look at a disappearing community in Montauk, one of many noble artistic pursuits that never reached completion. On her search for the real Montauk, Radziwill meets a former neighbor of her father’s, John “Black Jack” Bouvier III, who can hardly look her in the eye when he says Jack brought a different lady to Montauk every weekend.
If the deliciously grainy archival footage were the only thing “That Summer” had to offer, it would be enough. But by including Beard and Radziwill’s introspective voiceovers, Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson (“The Black Power Mixtape”) creates a nostalgic meditation that touches on both cultural and historical memory. Not only does the film breathe new life into an American family surrounded by tragic mythos, but it sheds light on a cinematic treasure that forever changed documentary filmmaking. A treasure we would not have without Radziwill, who is more acutely aware than most of memory’s import As she says in the movie —”Without memory, there is no life.”
“That Summer” is currently playing theaters.