More than four decades after the release of Grey Gardens, Alfred and David Maysles’s iconic 1975 film that introduced the wonderful and reclusive Beale women to modern moviegoers, Swedish documentarist Göran Hugo Olsson offers a return to the legendary East Hampton estate and the fascinating people who transformed it into their own dream world in his triumphant new-found footage film, That Summer.
Suspended in a delicate celluloid time capsule, That Summer captures a cherished moment in American pop culture, lovingly unearthed and compassionately reconstructed by Olsson. Featuring rare, revelatory footage filmed during the hazy summer of 1972—reels long believed to be lost to time and social circumstance—That Summer (released May 18) serves as a spiritual prequel of sorts to Grey Gardens, with Olsson applying his archival mastery to craft a meticulous work that both embraces the future and memorializes nostalgia.
The documentary is a masterful, moving family portrait that celebrates a beloved bygone era, including the mavericks that defined it with their art, nonpareil relationships and radical humanism: Andy Warhol, Edith and Edie Beale, Peter Beard, and Lee Radziwill, the niece of Big Edie and cousin of Little Edie, who floats elegantly between all manner of visitors, gawkers, and relatives in the film.
As to be expected, the inimitable Edies steal the show: Little Edie’s antics are as contagious as ever as she toggles between delivering bittersweet ruminations (she decries bringing up the past as “cruel”) and deliciously performative camp.
“What are you looking for, Edie?” a concerned Edith asks her eccentric daughter in one frantic scene amid the controlled chaos of their home renovation. “The thing I’m always looking for,” Little Edie quips in her thick, theatrical Manhattanite accent. “Either my pants or my makeup!” It’s an amusing brouhaha, but also encapsulates the air of comic tragedy surrounding the oft-misunderstood and certainly exploited Beales.
“This is a super important film for us. It strives for some social justice, but it’s also a celebration of New York and nostalgia. You shouldn’t be afraid of embracing the past, even if you are progressive,” Olsson wisely notes.
Below, the filmmaker discusses his assiduous editing process, his key takeaways from Andy Warhol’s diaries, and the surprising feminist message of That Summer.
ERICA RUSSELL How did you get involved with the project?
GÖRAN HUGO OLSSON When I was thirteen or fourteen in the mid ‘70s, I was very much into politics and active in the support of the [anti-Apartheid group] ANC. At the same time, I was totally into the art scene of New York: Andy Warhol, the beginning of disco and hip hop, and everything that was going around. I was totally devoted to that interest. I remember many times I would bike from an ANC meeting to the local library in my hometown to pick up the latest Interview magazine just to catch up with what was going on in New York.
My producer in NYC, Joslyn Barnes, she knew I was really into that era and we talked a lot about that time. She ran across the footage and she immediately knew I would be interested in seeing it and maybe doing something with it. It came through Peter Beard, who she met out to dinner. When we saw the footage, we were blown away by it.
ER When you first saw the footage, was there a particular moment that that stood out to you?
GHO There were two moments: One, with Little Edie and Lee Radziwill, where [the crew] are being protective and trying to calm Little Edie down and Lee takes her cousin’s hands in despair. There’s an opposite, intimate moment where they’re being very caring and close, and I think that was so nice to see—that it’s not a show for the media or the outside world. They were really loving and caring and had a deep history. Lee and Peter’s relations with the Beales was something that I was always struck by.
ER Why do you think we are so collectively fascinated by this particular moment in popular culture?
GHO It’s really the time itself. I think the biggest challenge for us wasn’t really to see whether or not we could make a film, but to create a framework that would work for an audience; that paid respect to the people on the screen and behind the camera, but make it accessible for the audience. The batter tastes better than the cake, you know? We wanted to be very open about the sources and everything and not try to mix anything in that didn’t belong—more drama, interviews everywhere, and so on—but make something that paid respect to the originators.
ER What does the nostalgia for this era mean for you, personally?
GHO I know we romanticize this era and I know about the drug problems and the economic shape the city was in, but still, New York in the ‘70s was a melting pot and it was a somewhat tolerant time in history where people could blend together from all different walks of life. I think, for me, that’s still the goal of this society: tolerance. We look back at people like Peter Beard, the Beales, and Andy Warhol and we see them as very eccentric people, but they were also very social and very tolerant to other people. I think [the era is] ultimately about tolerance and acceptance.
ER What precautions did you take to ensure the original intent of the footage was kept intact? Did it take on new meaning as you pieced it together?
GHO I did everything I could to keep what I believed was the [original] intention. It wasn’t only the footage from the Beales, but also Andy Warhol’s private diaries. I think that was something that was the number one priority—to pay respect and not edit too fast, which is the most obvious thing, and not make cuts or cut back and forth, but to keep the scenes within the original chronology. I’ve done quite a few films based on other material so I would like to think I’m kind of sensitive to that.
For instance, there is one scene where Andy Warhol and Peter Beard have a photo session, and I didn’t know how to use the footage without making it too short. We found the way was to use a voiceover and music. I’m very careful because I knew that I read in Andy’s diary that he liked to play music from opera star Maria Callas while shooting, so we put in a lot of work to find that. We did a lot of things to pay respect—not only to the filmmakers, but also to the time and the media. All that we tried to display and present as authentically as possible.
ER Did the original footage alter the way in which you now view the Maysles’s documentary?
GHO I have nothing to really say about that because it’s a masterpiece. I viewed it before doing this, but since then, I’ve watched thousands of hours of this new material, so it’s all kind of blurring in a way. [Laughs] But I’m so grateful about what we talked about before, which is the presence of Lee and how this is a family film. I’m not saying that Grey Gardens is exploitative, but this exploits the Beales less, in a way. But they’re films from different times, so you can’t really compare them, even though the material is from the same era.
They’re from different point of view, so I wouldn’t be able to compare them in that way. Of course, people are free to and will do so. But what’s also interesting is, I think in so many ways Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill and especially Peter Beard are prototypes for what’s going on today on Instagram—sharing their own private lives to make images and, in a way, exploit themselves. They want to be eccentric and fantastic and they want to be connected and take images on the beach and photograph themselves all the time, which is also something that you see in this film.
ER In what way do you hope this documentary can add to the legacies of Peter, Andy, Lee, and the Beales?
GHO This may sound super strange for you to hear from me, but I think regarding the Beales, it’s very much about how you are expected to behave as a woman. What are the limits of how eccentric you can behave in society as a woman? The Beales were obviously protected by their class and privilege, but then the community drew the line. They hit really hard at them. And this is very obvious when you see a super-person like Lee: She’s the most fantastic person ever, handling the media, the authorities, the craftsman, her handsome boyfriend, Truman Capote, her eccentric relatives, her lawyer and her kids all at the same time, all while being so elegant and beautiful, as she was.
You see that this behavior is fine, even though it’s of course impossible, you know? They really were the mavericks of their time.