(USA, 99 min.)
Dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Nar: Rupert Everett
Feat: Cecil Beaton Roy Strong, Leslie Caron, David Hockney, David Bailey, Penelope Tree, Hamish Bowles, Isaac Mizrahi
Cecil Beaton was a wildly gifted English artist, who had a much-lauded career for over five decades. Although he’s mostly known as the Oscar-winning production and costume designer for My Fair Lady, the vast majority of Beaton’s life was spent as a photographer. And, it must be noted, his photography moved from iconic portrait work to brilliant fashion shoots to deeply moving documentary work. He was also greatly admired for his wonderful illustrations, which helped him as a designer but also as a writer, who could add beautiful visuals to the prose in his many books. Yet Beaton never thought of himself as particularly gifted and was always concerned that his work wasn’t deep enough. Was his analysis correct?
Providing some of the answers but mainly intriguing us with Beaton’s astonishing life is the documentary director Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who has created in Love, Cecil another stylish exploration of an important 20th century cultural figure to go along with her previous works Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict and Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel. The director, who is married to one of Diana Vreeland’s grandsons, is clearly fascinated by art, fashion and beauty. So, of course, was Beaton, whose diverse career was ruled by his passion for the beautiful in his personal as well as professional life.
The pursuit of beauty and the need to chronicle it was Beaton’s obsession from his youthful days when he used to shoot his sisters Nancy and Baba as if they were fashion models. After leaving Cambridge with no degree, he established his career as a photographer by shooting the “smart set” in 1920s Britain, “the Bright Young People.” By 1929, he decided to conquer USA, by denouncing the beauty of American women upon his arrival in New York. It was an elegant publicity stunt, which worked. Soon, Beaton was hired by Vogue (and eventually the British and French incarnations) to shoot glamour and fashion photos. For years, he shot portraits of the rich and famous in Hollywood, New York, London and Paris while spending his leisure time at Ashcombe, his lovely estate. All went well until Beaton included anti-Semitic references in illustrations accompanying a fashion article in a 1938 edition of American Vogue.
Fired and denounced for racism, Beaton returned to London, where he staged a comeback when King George the 6th’s wife Elizabeth (latterly the beloved Queen Mother of Elizabeth the 2nd) chose him to be her favourite photographer. When World War Two began, she recommended Beaton to the Office of Information who made him their prime photographer. It was the documentary photos that Beaton shot during the war years that rescued his reputation—and, indeed, enhanced it.
After the war, Beaton finally got his chance to realize a major dream: to be a costume designer. He had a major success with the 1946 British theatrical production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan—and acted in it, as well. Over the next twenty-five years, while continuing as a photographer and writer, Beaton attained great acclaim for his design work on Gigi in film and My Fair Lady on stage as well as film. Other triumphs in theatre included The Grass Harp, The Chalk Garden and Coco.
Vreeland covers Beaton’s complex career with wit and elegance. She uses her access to Beaton’s extensive visual archives to create an atmosphere of gorgeous design, art and fashion throughout the film. Unafraid to use “talking heads,” she peppers the film with comments from art and design authorities like Roy Strong, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery and some of his colleagues as well as Vogue editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, former model Penelope Tree, artist David Hockney, star Leslie Caron and photographer David Bailey. Rupert Everett narrates the film, keeping the various strands of Beaton’s story skillfully arranged so they can be stitched together to make a convincing yarn.
What’s at the centre of Beaton’s art? Vreeland lands on beauty and, of course, she’s right. But perhaps there was something intrinsic that made objects and people beautiful to Beaton. From the time he was little, taking photos of his sisters, Beaton loved make-believe. Later the Bright Young People became known for their child-like behaviour: dressing up and staging treasure hunts. You can see that sense of make-believe in Beaton’s photos of Greta Garbo and the Bright Young People. You see them again in the clothes—and attitudes—of Leslie Caron in Gigi and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. It’s as if their childhood isn’t over; that they still have held on to their dreams.
That Beaton was gay was apparent to all. Yet his love for Peter Watson was never requited and there are many rumours about his relationship with Greta Garbo. One of the great joys of Beaton’s Bright Young People was cross-dressing and the parties at Ashcombe in the Thirties certainly appear to have been ambisexual or multi-sexual as well as replete with make-believe. Beaton never settled on one lover any more than he decided on one style of art. He always wanted more—and perhaps never achieved absolute success in art or life because of that ambition.
Love, Cecil is a documentary that will provoke more thought and interest in one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. Lisa Immordino Vreeland has made a film worthy of its subject—and that’s high praise indeed.
Love, Cecil opens March 16 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Read more about Love, Cecil in our interview with director Lisa Immordino Vreeland!