At the beginning of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s latest documentary, subject Cecil Beaton is described as a fashion designer, photographer, an author, and a dandy. How can one man be all those things, defining every facet of popular culture from publishing to clothing? It’s all laid out in Love, Cecil, a tightly wound journey into the life and mind of Beaton himself. Told through diary entries written by Beaton (and narrated by actor Rupert Everett) Love, Cecil tells the story of a man searching for love with the “fleeting moments” of life, dreaming along the way that he wouldn’t lead a life of insignificance.
Beaton considered himself a “dreamer” and that opened up his imagination to capturing the glittering, fantasy world unraveling before him. As England transitioned from the Edwardian era to the 1920s – the time of the “bright young things” and the flapper – Beaton was torn between two worlds. He loved the formal elegance of the time gone by, yet couldn’t help wanting to be part of the new lively movement cropping up around him. As various talking heads mention, the 1920s, particularly Beaton’s crowd which included Stephen Tennant, the Jungman sisters, and others were a time of elegance and vitality. Just hearing their reminisces, these people living in 2017 are jealous of Beaton.
Yet, while living in the present (at the time), Beaton was immortalizing the past. He gravitated to the theater, a continuing source of inspiration for him, and became fascinated with fashion and photography while looking at a picture of dramatic star, Lily Elsie. His work, both before and during his time in Hollywood, always contained a mix of time periods. His characters lived in a multitude of different times and thus looked timeless. One interview subject laughs at Beaton’s decision to take tin foil and place it on the walls during a photo, proof of the photog’s genius that something “we used to wrap our food” could lead to an indelible image.
People speak throughout the film, leading to a cacophony of different voices. Major denizens of the fashion world including Hamish Bowles and Isaac Mizrahi lend their voices to discussing how Beaton shaped fashion. He created the collage style of photography, and his drawing style was unique, though it did get him fired from Vogue after allegations of antisemitism popped up. There are also the words of Beaton himself. Everett’s smooth, polished tone is perfectly suited for the grand elegance that is Beaton’s prose. Listening to the combination of recitation and words is the perfect embodiment of why Beaton is so compelling. He captures the beauty of a time gone by while also being enamored that he lives within it.
Towards the end of Beaton’s life, once people he’s loved have passed on, he opines about how he tends to veer towards mourning the loss of the time period as opposed to celebrating that he got to be part of it. For a man with such joie de vivre this has to hurt. To have been involved with so many bright young things of different eras, from Salvador Dali to Marilyn Monroe, only to have time get away from you. At one point Bowles himself says he wishes Beaton was around to look at the state of celebrity. How would Beaton respond to Kim Kardashian? Would he write about her in his diaries?
But what speaks the loudest, and what Vreeland makes a point of including in nearly every frame, is Beaton’s work. You have your George Hurrell’s and Richard Avedon’s, who are fantastic in their own right, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a Cecil Beaton photo or design. Vreeland gives plenty of time to the art Beaton hath wrought and seeing this on a big screen turns Love, Cecil into a virtual art museum. The man’s portraiture going back to the ’30s is just breathtaking with stark interplays of black and white. Even once Beaton transitioned to color, most prominently capturing Mick Jagger, there’s just something tactile about his work.
Interwoven amongst the art is information about Beaton’s three loves – Peter Watson, Kin Hoitsma, and Greta Garbo. Beaton only gives glimpses into his own relationships, always feeling he was second-best to the man he truly loved, Watson. Professionally, Beaton was on top of the world, but personally, he always felt he was lacking.
There’s so much that happens within Beaton’s life, all captured in Love, Cecil. Whether you’re a fan of Beaton’s work or love Old Hollywood portraiture, this is an enchanting documentary about the best of the bright young things.