Film Review: Love, Cecil (2018) Dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland
By Belle McIntyre
I think this is the perfect pairing of one of our brightest documentary filmmakers and Cecil Beaton, one of the 20th century’s more fascinating cultural figures who left an indelible impression in the worlds of art, film, theatre and literature. As the granddaughter-in-law of the loquacious and iconic Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland, she was afforded unprecedented access to all things D.V. for her first film and accompanying coffee table book in 2011, The Eye Has To Travel. Her second film in 2015, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict was about an equally colorful, arguably more influential and complex personality, who made enormous waves in the art world, and was way ahead of her time in her embrace of modern art and support for the artists. That film was an unforgettable combination of archival footage, editing, graphics, and music which really raised the bar for documentary biographies.
She has brought all of that skill and finesse to bear in her latest film, a tribute to Cecil Beaton, another highly original, flamboyant, multi-talented artist, photographer, writer, theatre and film designer. She gives as personal a portrait as possible of a man whose most impressive creation was his own image. Refusing to be a product of the unposhness of his background, he developed ways of elevating his profile early on, dressing in outlandish, often gender inappropriate, ways he attracted attention away from his modest origins. As he grew older he developed a rakish, extravagantly elegant manner and style of dressing. Glib, witty, charming and handsome, his company was welcome everywhere and allowed him the freedom to express strong opinions with an imperiousness which covered his insecurities and guarded him from personal scrutiny as well as intimacy. This was a successful formula for quite a long time as he did not really have time for intimacy or complex friendships since he was, in his own words, “tormented with ambition”.
His trajectory was anything but smooth, however. The highs were very high but the lows were also, some of them seeming almost fatal. He knew nearly everyone worth knowing and worked with many notables. His film work includes George Cukor for whom he created the sublime beauty of the sets and costumes for My Fair Lady, as well as Vincent Minelli’s Gigi, both of which won him Oscars. He designed sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as well as theatre in the US and UK. As a photographer he was a war correspondent, then he worked in fashion photographing for Vogue among others and his portrait work includes all of the British Royal Family, celebrities from all of the arts and the beautiful members of society with whom there was mutual affinity.
He was a prolific diarist and many of them are published which makes it rich territory for research, much of which is voiced by Rupert Everett as Beaton (an inspired choice). There are also interviews with Hamish Bowles of Vogue, David Hockney, Truman Capote, David Bailey, Stephen Tenant and Oliver Messel, all of whom were friends. In 1972 he was knighted by the Queen. It looks like a life well-lived by any standard and it is dense with detail and fascinating stories. The case could be made that Beaton was the ultimate art director and his best oeuvre was his own life. I couldn’t have liked it more.