Love, Cecil, the latest documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland invites you to dive into the extraordinary work and life of Cecil Beaton. Vreeland (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict) spotlights the scope and depth of Beaton’s prolific career as a photographer, painter, writer, and costume designer in the film. As a photographer, Beaton took portraits of everyone from Gary Cooper to Elizabeth II, although his most frequent subject, and perhaps the most intriguing one, was himself. Immordino Vreeland takes audiences on a tour of Beaton’s world and shows his journey from England to Hollywood in a visual portrait that is as vibrantly alive as the subject’s best work.
Some of Beaton’s most iconic images are present, in particular the celebrity portraits of bombshell actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, and Audrey Hepburn. Audiences less familiar with Beaton will enjoy the novelty of the star-studded collection, but the film shows an eye for beauty that looks beyond glamour as Immordino Vreeland shines a light on some of Beaton’s lesser known work, like his street photography and wartime portraits. Extended sequences illustrate his significant contributions to Hollywood classics: Beaton amassed three Academy Awards as a costume designer for films such as Gigi and My Fair Lady.
Love, Cecil adds to the array of archival images through a chorus of interviews from Beaton’s peers and admirers including Hamish Bowles, Leslie Caron, and Isaac Mizrahi. The stories and images portray a life of pain and glamour, but also one of ongoing reinvention. Lisa Immordino Vreeland once again gives a buoyant and comprehensive portrait of a creative mind who made a significant contribution to the arts and the ways in which we preserve our stories onscreen. It’s a beautiful film rife with invigorating images and creative inspiration.
POV recently spoke with Immordino Vreeland by phone to discuss Love, Cecil. After chatting about the Oscars that were handed out the night beforehand, the director talked about her love for Beaton’s contemporary eye, which grew while she was making both a film and a companion book of photography about the prolific artist.
POV: Pat Mullen
LIV: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: What drew Cecil Beaton into your creative orbit?
LIV: He’s been circulating there for a while. He was a very good friend of Diana Vreeland. In the Vreeland family, everybody refers to him as “Cecilia.” That’s the nickname for Beaton in the family…it’s quite funny. When I’m looking for a character I’m not only looking for their contributions—for Beaton, it was much wider than I confess to knowing when I first decided to do a film about him—but I also knew there were very rich archives. I wanted to do this visual delight of beautiful material. We interpreted it with motion graphics, colours on screens, and things like that.
POV: And you’ve been drawn to creative types. Beaton, Vreeland, Peggy Guggenheim.
LIV: I’ve understood that people are attracted to my films not only to be able to glory in the accomplishments of a person, but because of his or her character. By showing that they’re insecure, by showing that they’re weak. Beaton has this incredible split personality. There’s the persona that you see out there engaged in the creative world, but he had another side with this driving ambition that held him back from ever having true love or enjoying himself.
POV: It seemed like he suffered from imposter syndrome.
LIV: Yes, very much so. Those were all aspects of him that I thought would be great on the big screen. Diana Vreeland and Beaton are always known by the same group of people. It’s the same familiarity and consciousness, but people now know Diana Vreeland because of the film. I resurrected her, in a way. I think Beaton will do the same thing. What was so great about him was his creativity. It drove me to make the film. He couldn’t stop—and I loved that.
POV: In his prolific output, the range of archival material is astonishing: over 150,000 negatives and prints, and that’s just in the recorded figures. How does one even begin to comb through all this material?
LIV: I didn’t comb through all 150,000. I’ll confess! There are different archives. Sotheby’s has the biggest archive and I went through it by decades and characters. Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve had a sense of what an audience will be attracted to and what names. I always have to be careful to edit myself. For people I absolutely love, love, love, there may be people today who don’t know who they are. I also wanted to be sure when I was going through the photographs that I found a mixture of the iconic and contemporary images. Beaton’s a really contemporary subject in his need to move forward constantly.
POV: Did any particular aspects of his work—the celebrity portraits, street photography, or war photography—strike you in the process?
LIV: The whole thing of this cross-dressing—all those shots of when he was in Cambridge, he was essentially cross-dressing back when he was in college. That’s what they all did, the Bright Young Things. Those shots are fantastic. I could have just done a film with those if I was allowed to, but I chose the best ones. It was such a contemporary way that he was looking at the world back then. I did less of the English social pictures because that just didn’t interest me at all—a lot of the Bright Young Things, they’re Ladies and Counts, so they’re in there. The process of picking imagery and material is slightly continuous because while we start to carve out the narrative arc, we understand what pictures we need, or more imagery or archival footage. After we had complete narrative lock, we probably spent a month beautifying the images—all those colour washes—and we did it here in house. I had thousands of images that I had already picked and it was just nice to have them at your fingertips.
POV: I can imagine Beaton’s work provides much creative inspiration.
LIV: He wrote 38 books too. I read all of them and I take very meticulous notes, so the dialogue was part of us making a narrative arc. All of the VO [voiceover] that Rupert Everett reads, it’s so much fun to be able to find phrases for all of this. It’s all organised by topic and it becomes much easier in the end. I did not read his actual diaries that he has at St. John’s.
POV: Oh, really?
LIV: His handwriting is actually really difficult to read.
POV: I noticed that! I was looking at your book yesterday and his writing [in the captions] was very hard to make out. The pictures tell a lot more.
LIV: It’s impossible! You have to think of it. He had a ledger-sized diary or journal and he would not pick up his pen. There are these sentences that are forever long. I sat down with Hugo Vickers, his authorised biographer, one day and we were side by side. I would read a sentence and he would read the same sentence, and they’d be completely different. But I don’t feel like I short-changed myself or the world by not reading his diary. It was something I had a conversation with Hugo about doing. It would have taken me years.
POV: You mentioned the voiceover. Rupert Everett is quite effective.
LIV: This device of having a voiceover really does work. I really wanted to have Rupert Everett. When we went into a session, he started with a lower voice and I had to let him do what he wanted to do for a couple of pages. But then I really wanted him to be himself and give it a little gravitas. I didn’t want him to be Beaton. I wanted him to be himself and that’s when it works.
POV: Was the plan all along to do both the book and the documentary together? You did a book and a film for Diana Vreeland.
LIV: There are some projects where it’s clear that it’s just going to work. In Beaton’s case, there’s been a book published on him pretty much every year or year and a half since his death. In this case, I wanted to show material people hadn’t seen before. I went through the archive at St. John’s—that’s where the paper archive is—and there were things in there that people had never seen before, like that chapter on photographers. That’s my favourite chapter with the letter from Irving Penn to him. He had these friendships that I wanted to show.
POV: And since you’ve worked in different aspects of the industry, I suspect you always know whom to ask?
LIV: Pretty much. I had a lot of access to materials and that’s a big part of me, organising. Because of the way I’ve done my films, people trust me. I also do shorter films. There’s this channel called M2M, which is Made to Measure. It’s a fun fashion channel that was originally made for AppleTV, but now you can get it on your computer. I have this great show, Art of Style, which I direct. I do it on contemporary people from Pierpaolo Piccioli to Dries Van Noten to Georgia O’Keefe—someone who isn’t alive—to Tim Walker, the British photographer, and they trust me with material because of my feature work. These are living people I’m making short films on. I always seem to focus on the creative process and what makes people tick. I want people to leave with some positive aspect that makes them look at themselves, push themselves forward, and say, “I believe in myself. I can do this.” In my three feature films, there is always that message at the end.
POV: The film runs with the idea of “beauty,” and how that’s changing. The book talks about how “beauty” was the most important word for Beaton. Did your definition of beauty change while making the film or do you have a firmer grasp of the word after immersing yourself in Beaton’s world?
LIV: No! [Laughs] How lucky can one be that the ultimate choice in life is to pursue beauty? Perhaps he didn’t have as much of a wide or as open-minded of an approach to beauty, I would say, just because of the time he was in. Today we have to be much more open minded to beauty. His environments were beautiful, but he also found beauty in the war while covering it. He was travelling all over the place for the Ministry of Information. He was not on the front line, so he was not photographing people who were dead. He found beauty by showing us what it was like for soldiers to live at that time. Perhaps his vision of it is exclusive, but I think it’s nice to see how he captured it in so many ways and in so many decades. I didn’t have these images in the film, but I think my favourite spread in the book features a profile shot of a sheep and these images of potatoes—
POV: The potatoes with the double exposure. I really like those.
LIV: I love photography and I’ve been collecting it for years, but I love the simplicity of that. It’s stripped down. That’s a Beaton nobody knows. They think of extravagance when they think of Beaton. It comes in hand with his personality, as you see in the film. Think of how much fun Ashcombe [Beaton’s legendary home from 1930-1945] would have been. His weekends were about including his friends and making a mise en scène of a life that didn’t exist for him. He had a vision of the world, this sense of beauty, and he wanted to bring us into it at all times and on every platform. It’s fascinating because today we’re completely drawn in. As humans, we are attracted to beauty. The aesthetic and the visuals drive me.
POV: And in the way of drawing people’s eyes to things, the recurring visuals of the Ashcombe grounds reminded me of the walking tours of Peggy Guggenheim’s art collection. What inspired the use of greenery and the visits to Ashcombe?
LIV: I work with such a talented DP, Shane Sigler, who trained with Bruce Weber. Bruce is his mentor and it’s so clear by the way he works. Ashcombe is so beautiful. If you’re at all a Beaton fan, the book that’s worth reading is a short little book called Ashcombe and the way he describes it is dreamy beyond belief. Madonna bought it with Guy Ritchie and, in the divorce, Guy Ritchie ended up getting the house. Of course, the inside is not the same, but the land is. He’s done a marvellous job of maintaining it.
I wanted to shoot really beautiful B-roll and it was clearly the most important place where Beaton lived. Of course, he loved Reddish [Beaton’s home from 1947 until his death] but I wanted make a dream sequence in Ashcombe. Sometimes when we started to show it to people, they reacted and didn’t understand what was with all the greenery. It’s important to keep your ears open and take in these comments. In some cases, I realized that they weren’t the right people to comment on it because they didn’t get this kind of thing. When we got to the later process of being almost locked, people saw the dreamy aspect. I just wanted to give people a break. His “down moments” are at Ashcombe in the rain. Like when he was in the attic. We had one morning where it rained like crazy and it just worked. He was in the attic—his brother had died, his father had died, and he was looking through old boxes. I want to use more of that. B-roll is so important, especially when you have such a talented person to work with and a place as beautiful as Ashcombe.
POV: I like how the film goes from cities and the fast-paced life, and then you get your weekend retreat. That’s a nice pattern. And with the pace of things, Hamish Bowles comments that Beaton was in some ways the pioneer of selfie culture. What do you think he would have made of social media and Instagram?
LIV: He would have been in the middle of it. He was doing it anyway before anybody else. It’s this sense of ego that he had of placing himself with these famous people, influential people, creators, and voices of the 20th Century. He was equally as powerful and this sense of selfies and social media—he would have been just as good as anybody else today.
POV: Is there a Cecil Beaton of today?
LIV: We have to think about how creative he was in so many different forms. He was not only a photographer, but also a writer, an artist, and a costume designer. I challenge you to find somebody today who is so good at all of that. That’s what always surprises me. When I think about who to compare him to today, I can’t find anybody.
POV: No, I couldn’t come up with one, either.
LIV: There’s not. He had this global vision. It was part of his life. He was travelling all over and had these vibrant careers in different cities. Ultimately, it was his personal downfall. He couldn’t do anything else but that. He couldn’t love. He couldn’t manage a serious type of relationship because this was all he knew.
POV: It’s sad, in a way.
LIV: It is! How can one handle all that? We can’t forget about his ambition. He just couldn’t give it up and that’s the most negative aspect of him, the ambition.
POV: There’s a positive aspect to that too because it added to his ongoing reinvention.
LIV: He’s not only given us an archive that’s full of the most creative voices of the 20th Century but also an archive of his musings and writings on people. He would have a session and then write about it and you could see that he wasn’t always generous in his comments. This is so important. I love to do these 20th Century characters, these voices that were out there and knew these people—they’re all going to disappear. I think of John Richardson who knew absolutely everybody. He’s 93 or 94. I didn’t interview him for Beaton because, frankly, there’s a certain point where you respect their age, but we’re really reaching a point where we’re losing these voices who can really comment on these people and knew them. For me it’s really frightening. I want to be able to tell these stories. When you have all these archives of great material, you use it as much as you can.
Love, Cecil opens Friday, March 16 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
The companion book is now available in stores and libraries and at Amazon.