Documentary filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland has made two films—Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, about the legendary fashion editor of Harpers Bazaar who also happens to be her grandmother-in-law; and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, following the famed arts patron. Both are about individuals who were gatekeepers to art, style, fashion and what is generally considered taste. For the first time with her latest work, Love, Cecil, she’s moving into the realm of profiling someone at the center of the creative world—photographer, stage and set designer, and costume designer Cecil Beaton.
With the context of the film, we learn quickly that Beaton’s life and the company he kept quite frequently informed the people and manner in which he photographed. Growing up middle class, he was undeniably drawn to those who were beyond wealthy, the idle rich who liked to dress up in costumes (sometimes clothes of the opposite sex and makeup) and pose for him as part of the Bright Young Things elite of 1920s Britain. His style of portraiture seemed perfectly suited to accentuate the glamour while still capturing the essence of his subjects, some of whom he was quite in love with.
The film makes remarkable use of archival footage and more than a few modern-day interviews with some of Beaton’s associates and those inspired by him to tell the total story of a gay man, who was quite proud of who he was, even though it was illegal at the time. He was often referred to as a “dandy,” which feels like a polite way of letting him get away with it, although he treated the term like it meant he was a tastemaker and style expert, as well as an accomplished artist. He photographed famous models, actors, and even was the personal favorite of Queen Elizabeth for most of his career. Love, Cecil also dives into Beaton’s World War II photography, which brought him some amount of redemption after using an uncharacteristically anti-Semitic slur in one of his drawings that appeared in Vogue and nearly derailed his career.
Most of the film’s narration comes from illustrated diaries (given voice by Rupert Everett), which are filled with collage-like clippings and elegant writings that are funny and quite revealing, including his account of his love affair with Greta Garbo. The film makes the case that so much of his life can be seen today as a search for acceptance. While he did have love affairs, he never settled in for anything long term, perhaps by choice but more than likely he simply put his work first. Also contained in these diaries are some choice, biting words about certain subjects he simply never got along with, including the likes of Katharine Hepburn (who he called “a dried-up old shoe”), Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton (“vulgar”), and the list goes on.
An Oscar-winning costumer and production designer (for such films as My Fair Lady and Gigi) and a Tony winner for stage designing Coco, Beaton’s style in every arena influenced countless generations of fashion and portrait photographers, as well as costumers and set designers. The film makes the case that there is something utterly timeless about his work, while it still reflects the period.
Love, Cecil doesn’t shy away from Beaton’s contradictions or from his being something of a poseur—at times he almost embraced the double life he was leading—and that makes the film all the more watchable and substantive. It’s a true insiders story, told from the point of view of a man who often felt like he was on the outside looking in. Love, Cecil is an endlessly fascinating viewing experience, and it doesn’t hurt that the man’s photos were spectacular.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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