Cecil Beaton had one goal in life – to be more than “just an ordinary, anonymous person.”
In pursuit of it, he became not only one of the 20th century’s most influential photographers, but also a Tony and Oscar-winning visual designer, a writer and a celebrated taste-maker whose influence continues to be felt in fashion and visual art today.
As chronicled in “Love, Cecil,” a new documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, he was born into a prosperous but decidedly middle-class family in Hampstead, a suburb of London, and wanted nothing more than to mingle with the rich and beautiful.
His storied career took him there. His decade-long stint taking iconic photos for Vogue yielded images that defined and dictated the “look” of the 1930s, and celebrities and socialites clamored to be photographed by him, even England’s royal family; in mid-life, he turned his attention to the stagecraft that had inspired him in his youth, designing sets and costumes for Broadway shows and Hollywood blockbusters that introduced his audacious sense of style to a new generation; and in his later years, he continued to explore horizons, documenting the changing tastes of the times and championing younger artists whose ideas he found exciting.
Through it all, he kept diaries. Volumes of personal thoughts and memories, not just about himself, but about all the famous figures who passed through his life. He published those in his lifetime (though he left out some of the more poisonous parts – he was known for the sharpness of his tongue towards those whom he found objectionable, and there were many), allowing readers an insight into a classic world of fame and glamour that he himself had helped to immortalize.
Key passages from these diaries (as read by Rupert Everett) provide the narration for Vreeland’s film, which is less concerned with conveying the factual specifics of biography – though it does so – than it is with finding the cohesive thread that ties it together. Like her previous documentaries, “The Eye Has to Travel” (about her own grandmother-in-law, Diana Vreeland, who was also one of Beaton’s closest friends) and “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” her exploration of Beaton’s life focuses on his artistic vision, his desire to create around himself the world he in which he wanted to live. It’s something she clearly comprehends; she succeeds at finding depth in the artist’s obsessions with style and beauty – concerns which many might have dismissed as shallow – and helping her audience find the same importance in them as he clearly did.
With archival footage (some of it never seen before), stills, and interviews, she gives us a long and loving look at Beaton himself, both in his own words and in those of many of his contemporaries and colleagues. These segments capture the man’s eloquence, wit and the enigmatic blend of vanity and self-criticism that drove him throughout his life to keep striving for more. They also present a glorious look at a long-gone era that has shaped the aesthetic sensibilities of our culture for generations.
There are, of course, the expected revelations. There is discussion of Beaton’s sexuality – he was, by his own admission, mostly interested in “homosexualism” – and his love affairs, such as they were, with art collector Peter Watson and Olympic fencer Kinmont Hoitsma. There is also some exploration of his supposed romance with Greta Garbo, along with hints of his more private sex life from his former butler. More salacious, perhaps, are the deliciously catty remarks that emerge from the unpublished portions of his diaries, about celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, which are sure to satisfy those with a taste for dishing dirt.
Most of all, though, Vreeland’s movie lets Beaton’s own work do the talking. Her loving presentation of so many of the glorious images he captured conveys his gifts more eloquently than spoken words could ever accomplish. Brimming with detail, composed against visually arresting backgrounds, with a flair for the dramatic and hints of eroticism and sly humor, these unparalleled photographs not only reveal Beaton’s flawless understanding of style and beauty but his knack for capturing something essential about his subjects – no matter how fantastical their setting may be.
The most intriguing photos of the bunch, though, may be Beaton’s pictures of himself. Throughout his life, he used the camera to help create his own persona, his style, his very self-image and the image of the world he wished to create around him. Long before the era of cell phone cameras, he was taking “selfies,” paving the way for today’s army of Instagram “influencers” – but the only brand he was promoting was his own.
Indeed, mid-way through the film one of its commentators (Vogue editor Hamish Bowles) speculates that Beaton would have relished the opportunities afforded by today’s social media culture. “I would love to see a Beaton portrait of Kim Kardashian,” he wryly observes.
After seeing “Love, Cecil,” with the insight it brings about Beaton’s ability to reveal “the unvarnished truth” in his work, it’s safe to say that Mr. Bowles speaks for us all.
“Love, Cecil” can be seen at the Landmark Nuart Theatre (11272 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles) from July 20 – 26. Tickets and more information are available here.