“Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale — the eccentric mother and daughter rattling around a dilapidated East Hampton mansion in the cult documentary Grey Gardens — are arthouse superheroes. How else to explain a documentary, an HBO movie, a stage musical, a dramatic play, a song by Rufus Wainwright and numerous pop culture references, from a spoof on IFC’s Documentary Now! to Jinkx Monsoon’s “Little Edie” impersonation on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
As if that isn’t enough, the famously freakish Bouvier Beale’s now have their own origin story with a new Grey Gardens documentary — Göran Olsson’s archival footage film That Summer, culled from the memories of American photographer Peter Beard, who, along with his then-paramour Lee Radziwill (the younger sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), chronicled the decaying life at the Grey Gardens estate in 1972, years before the Maysles brothers gained access to its secret sanctuary.
For That Summer, the selling point is the recently found footage of the Bouvier Beales as they acclimate to the intrusion of a camera in their personal sphere. You can almost see them relaxing into the process as their personas grow more confident with the spooling of each can of film.
Yet the documentary has a great subject in Peter Beard himself — a renowned photographer and artist at the center of glamorous ’70s culture, surrounded by the likes of Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Mick and Bianca Jagger (all of whom make appearances). Olsson could have simply concentrated on Beard’s accomplishments as a wildlife photographer, as well as his beautiful physique, and the documentary would have been successful.
“The art scene, the social nightlife of New York in the 1970s was for me the very heart of cultural life,” Olsson has said. “In the United States there were problems with drugs, unemployment, racial issues, but at the time the art scene celebrated freedom, tolerance, multi-ethnicity, disco, homosexuality, and Peter Beard was very much at the center of that scene.”
And though Beard, as well as Radziwill, get plenty of screen time, the photographer cedes the focus to the well-loved oddballs — and their misshapen estate — who’ve staked a claim in our collective conscious.
“Every single visit with Edie and Edie was every bit as interesting as anything I’ve enjoyed or experienced in the wildlife years of East Africa,” Beard has said. “Every minute was new, insanely funny, poignant, wild, unpredictable and unmatchable.”
I’m only a casual fan of the Maysles brothers’ film, but I’m tickled by the cottage industry that’s blossomed around it. The Rufus Wainwright song from his Poses record is a highlight, and Drew Barrymore has never been better than she was in her Emmy-winning performance as “Little Edie” in the HBO movie.
I look forward to the inevitable opera this story was put on earth to inspire. (C’mon, Rufus, you know you want to.) And I understand the cultish devotion of many gays to all things Bouvier Beale.
What That Summer makes abundantly clear is that it’s a devotion shared by Peter Beard, and it’s not far off from the amazing wildlife collages that made his reputation. In each case, and heartbreakingly so, he was attempting to document the last throes of some fiercely independent species well on their way to extinction.