Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Documentarian Lisa Immordino Vreeland definitely doesn’t think so, as her examination of the life and career of photographer/artist/costume designer Cecil Beaton understands that the many contradictions in his character informed a lifetime of work across a variety of different mediums. Despite growing up in an upper middle class home, Beaton had a sense of self importance, and hatred for this supposedly “poor” upbringing in the early 20th century – a first world problem that would go on to inspire his best known work, such as his costume design for the beloved aspirational class climbing tale of My Fair Lady.
This is the third in director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s series of documentaries taking an in-depth look at famous historical figures in the fashion world, following examinations of Harpers Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland and collector Peggy Guggenheim. But here, she takes a more critical stance in regards to her subject than she did in previous efforts; she never shies away from showing the negative aspects to Bretton’s character, knowing that understanding his controversial personality is key to furthering the appreciation of his work. You may not come away from Love, Cecil with a newfound love of the man – but you definitely won’t be able to assess everything from his photos to his Academy Award winning costume designs in the same light.
He may have been unnecessarily ashamed of his upbringing, but he managed to integrate himself into high society via creating a mythology around himself and his close circle of friends and family. It’s argued within the documentary that he could be seen as one of the first major figures in PR due to how he ingratiated himself within the public consciousness from scratch – soon heading off to America and creating headlines by strategically making outrageous comments to the press. This early stage in his career could be viewed as him displaying a lack of sincerity; he eventually lost a high profile job at Vogue for a series of anti semitic comments that he argued were misjudged jokes. Being brought back down to earth didn’t exactly humble him, but it did lead him closer to his biggest career achievements, including his “revolutionary” war photography that engrained a subtle homoeroticism into the battlefield.
Beaton was a man brought into a life of privilege who still felt out of his league when placed next to royalty or celebrity. But as his career ascended once again following earlier controversies, his diaries (excerpts of which are read here by narrator Rupert Everett) once again showed unmasked and entirely unnecessary contempt for many in the worlds of fashion and entertainment. He quarrelled with My Fair Lady director George Cukor for unspecified reasons, and gladly wrote extensive prose about the “decaying bodies” of ageing celebrities like Katherine Hepburn. Many of the film’s interviewees, biographers, collaborators and fans of Beaton alike, all suggest this is out of a self-destructive desire to burn all bridges upon achieving success. It makes Beaton an incredibly intriguing figure that this documentary can, naturally, only scratch the surface of – but this remains a complicated character study incredibly worthy of its complicated subject.
Love, Cecil is a fascinating study of one of the most polarising figures in 20th century fashion and photography. There’s no denying the talent of Cecil Beaton, nor the sheer scale of his influence to this day – but whether or not you leave the documentary having warmed to him is another question altogether, and is part of what makes Vreeland’s film such an intriguing watch.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Zeitgeist Films