To their fans, the Beales of Grey Gardens are almost as big as the Beatles of Liverpool. They’re culturally iconic, endlessly fascinating and — as a new documentary proves — so well-documented that new artifacts of their existence keep emerging.
After the filmmakers Albert and David Maysles captured Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her flamboyant daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, in the 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” — named after their decrepit East Hampton mansion — the two eccentric women became unlikely stars. It helped, of course, that they were nominal aristocrats: the aunt and cousin, respectively, of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Little Edie, a quirky charmer with a collection of striking headscarves, inspired magazine spreads and fashion lines. Little Edie’s girlhood diary became a book; a family member published a tome of photographs; and a Broadway version of their story earned three Tony Awards. In 2006, the Maysles released hours of unused footage on a two-disc DVD.
Filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, however, may have discovered the Holy Grail of Bealemania: four reels of film, shot by the Maysles well before “Grey Gardens,” that lay forgotten in an archive for more than 40 years. They were discovered by the photographer Peter Beard, who in 1972 had launched the project with his then girlfriend, the socialite Lee Radziwill — younger sister of Jackie Kennedy and also closely related to the Beales — but never completed it. (The Maysles returned on their own power and started afresh for their film.) Olsson, a filmmaker who specializes in found footage, fashioned the raw reels into a documentary titled “That Summer,” which arrives in theaters May 18. Featuring original footage of Beard in his Montauk studio, “That Summer” depicts a bygone East End where characters like the Beales lived not far from vacationing luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Mick Jagger — all glimpsed in the film.
“It was fantastic,” Beard, now 80, says in the film of the time he spent chronicling the Beales. “We were pretty much selfishly exploring the amazing thing that was in front of us.”
The story of how Olsson, a Swedish filmmaker, came to direct a movie about two Long Islanders begins with a phone call from his producer, Joslyn Barnes. At a dinner with Beard, Barnes learned the photographer had just come into possession of the all-but-forgotten Beale footage.
Barnes, who helped Olsson produce his politically-themed documentary “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” knew the director had a side interest in the New York City of the 1970s — a heady mix of high art and nightclub culture. That cultural scene also spilled into the East End of Long Island, where cultural movers and shakers sneaked off to enjoy quiet weekends.
“I never thought I could capitalize on all the knowledge and trivia I had of The Factory and Studio 54,” Olsson says. “But in this film, I could spot people in the background and know their names.”
To fans of the Beales, the lost footage will be priceless. For starters, the Grey Gardens mansion looks worse even than in the 1975 film, with water-damaged floors and rotting furniture. Radziwill, who helps oversee repairs during filming, looks decidedly out of place — beautifully dressed, tastefully bejeweled — but she never talks down to her unusual relatives. As for Little Edie, she’s a dependable fount of quirky mannerisms and idioms.
“They occupy a very special spot in popular culture, they’re almost indelible,” Joseph Aversano, a trustee at the East Hampton Historical Society, says of the Beales. Fundraisers at Grey Gardens have proved enormously popular, he says, and a recent estate sale there drew buyers from all around the country. “There isn’t a July Fourth that goes by in East Hampton,” he says, “where someone doesn’t do the ‘Little Edie dance’ with the American flag.”
In the end, “That Summer” is partly about the Beales and partly about the young artists who spent a summer filming them. “It evokes an image or a feeling of that summer when you were in love, you had your friends around you, when you were involved in great projects,” Olsson says. “It’s the ideal summer that you remember in your life.”
WHEN |WHERE “That Summer” opens May 18 at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave., Manhattan.
INFO 212-924-7771, ifccenter.com