Love, Cecil: documenting Cecil Beaton's fleeting moments of fabulousness
REVIEW by Drew Rowsome
5 March 2018
There is a moment in the documentary Love, Cecil where the content transcends the form, transcends reality. Truman Capote and Diana Vreeland sit perched in a red-shellacked over-decorated room - Vreeland's parlour? office? her red obsession is well documented - cattily gossiping about Love, Cecil's subject Cecil Beaton. It is a gay wet dream that builds to a climax as they agree that Beaton hated a lot of people. They giggle and the film cuts to Beaton naming the people he loathes and why, while glorious images, many shot by Beaton himself, of the various stars and society stalwarts he is slandering fill the screen.
It is camp gay high bitter queen bitchery at a level that will probably never be equalled.
Love, Cecil is otherwise a conventional biographical documentary. Fortunately Cecil Beaton was utterly unconventional and layering any artifice over his layers of artifice would have collapsed the entire production into an excess worthy of Beaton at his most precious. Love, Cecil begins with Beaton's childhood and then progresses chronologically throughout his life and his series of artistic pursuits. It is all illustrated with the photographs, including many carefully constructed self portraits, that Beaton created. Because the man essentially invented fashion photography, the images are mesmerizing, stunning and worthy of study.
Beaton also kept copious diaries which were, after being heavily edited to avoid libel suits, published to great acclaim and financial reward. Selections are read in the most mellifluous tones by the great orator Rupert Everett (The Judas Kiss, ex-Madonna bff) who also narrates. The sonics are as lush and seductive as the visuals. But not as spellbinding as the man himself. Beaton himself appears in edits from interviews and he is a precisely flamboyant grand dame, utterly sure of himself and his wit and opinions. A brief monologue about hats distills the gay experience, aging and style into an aphorism of wonder. Beaton's vintage interviews would have been a satisfying cinematic experience all on their own.
Love, Cecil lovingly chronicles Beaton's remarkable career from the London suburbs to Vogue and New York to Hollywood to the trenches of the second world war to his obsession with royalty and celebrity. There are tasty tidbits and delicious gossip, and a real sense of Beaton's place within both photography and design as art and as an adjunct to celebrity worship. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland keeps the pacing swift with just enough louche languor to let the audience catch their breath. She also has a knack of answering questions just as they are being posed. The sexually ambiguous erotic photos of his fellow youthful sybarites call Beaton's own preferences into question. The question is answered before being plunged into more confusion by his affair with the usually lesbian Greta Garbo.
Because Beaton spent his life in pursuit of beauty - and shock value and, not incidentally, fame - his path intersected with most of the celebrities of his time. He shot the coronation photos of Queen Elizabeth but also many portraits of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. He designed the sumptuous look of the film version of My Fair Lady and earned an Academy Award for his efforts. He, when still a child, posed his sisters, those "gross little schoolgirls," as faux glamour girls and got them into the society pages. He captured the horrors of war while still injecting a virile homoeroticism into the images. He threw great parties.
He photographed Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Johnny Weissmuller, Salvador Dali, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (who had just met at the pool of his hotel), and convinced David Hockney that photography just might be of artistic value. Beaton writes in his diary that, "I took thousands of snapshots and wrote hundreds of thousands of words trying to capture a fleeting moment." Love, Cecil takes a thousand fabulous fleeting moments and arranges them into an enigmatic portrait of a complicated fascinating man. Anyone who can incite envy and cuntiness - anyone who can get them to mention his name - from Capote and Vreeland, is someone worthy of a portrait as loving and scathing as Love, Cecil.
Love, Cecil opens on Fri, March 16 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor St W. hotdocscinema.ca