For film audiences, the work of photographer and artist Cecil Beaton is most closely associated with his iconic Oscar-winning production and costume designs for the 1957 musical classic ‘My Fair Lady’. In many ways, his contribution to that film has become his major mark on popular culture, so vivid and beloved was his work. However, Beaton’s artistic output was much greater than his film design, predominantly as one of the truly great portrait photographers of the 20th century. With her documentary ‘Love, Cecil’, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland aims to create a vivid portrait of the artist and reveal the breadth of his talent and artistic philosophy, one that permeated every facet of his life.
Because of the enormity of his artistic output, Vreeland (whose previous documentaries had looked at fashion editor Diana Vreeland and art collector Peggy Guggenheim) has a wealth of material to illustrate her subject. In fact, Beaton seemed to be preparing himself unknowingly for a documentary portrait, both with his extensive diaries (here used as narration and read by Rupert Everett) and his fascination with photographing himself. The portrait that Vreeland presents us of Beaton is one of a man whose own self was his great fascination, not as a kind of narcissism but as an act of self-reflection and improvement. It also helps that the works he created, especially his photography, were so much an extension of his own tastes and tendencies.
The film covers the entire breadth of Beaton’s life, from his birth in 1904, his early days as a teenager among the Bright Young Things of the post-war period, his ascension as the major fashion and portrait photographer for Vogue, his rise to the role of photographer for the British royal family, his extraordinary work documenting the horrors of the Second World War, his transition into production design and his proper establishment as a pop culture figure. Every stage is illustrated by his photographs, interviews and artworks, as well as the publications and films he worked for, and supplemented by commentary from contemporaries, admirers and heirs in the art and fashion world. The trajectory of the narrative is chronological, so that structurally ‘Love, Cecil’ isn’t a particularly adventurous documentary, but the richness of the visual material and the narration still make it a fascinating and very entertaining one. Beaton is a subject that you can’t help but be charmed by, not just because of Vreeland’s clear bias towards him, but from his own inherent charm. Beaton is very present in this documentary, more so that usual for a figure from this period, and so Vreeland’s task becomes facilitating his voice the best way she can.
‘Love, Cecil’ really bounces along, helped particularly by an immediate stylistic sensibility. The editing from Bernadine Colish is clear yet inventive, making ample use of the visual material and finding a playful rhythm in how it is presented. The film is also complemented by a lovely modern-style score from Phil France that makes it feel immediate and walks the line between the frivolity that Beaton tries to project and the more pensive, emotional aspects of his life.
‘Love, Cecil’ isn’t a particularly adventurous documentary, but the richness of the visual material and the narration still make it a fascinating and very entertaining one.
This is another area where Vreeland’s careful step is wise: allowing Beaton a voice to speak honestly about his sexuality and difficulty with relationships. It is less that Beaton’s homosexuality brings him sadness or difficulty - it was something he embraced and never hid, and in fact the documentary puts forward the idea that it was his comfort with himself as a sexual being that contributed to the greatness of his portraiture. The conflict in Beaton’s life, as presented in the film, is the collision between being personal relationships and being an artist, in particular his romantic relationships with friend Peter Watson, fencer Kinmont Hoitsma and screen legend Greta Garbo. In all three cases, each echoing through Beaton’s life, he finds himself craving a deep romantic relationship and his need to express and create. Vreeland also doesn’t let Beaton off the hook, allowing space for criticism of his personality from his contemporaries and addressing a surprising act of immature anti-semitism that almost ended his career before the Second World War, allowing there to be a sense of balance amongst the praise.
While it might not be an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking, ‘Love, Cecil’ sets out with an intention and easily achieves it. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s respect for her subject comes through in every frame, and she really gets lucky with Beaton, a figure so fasciated with self-documentation and so open about who he was during that process. It’s impossible not to walk away with a greater appreciation for him as an artist, particularly due to his staggering portraiture, some of it amongst the most iconic photography in 20th century popular culture. Executed with energy, playfulness and clarity, ‘Love, Cecil’ is about as wonderful a portrait as Cecil Beaton himself could possibly have hoped for.