Accomplishment in stage and screen plus buckets of charisma should make anyone a fascinating documentary subject. But Love, Cecil, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s portrait of arts jack-of-all-trades Cecil Beaton, is a test of hagiographic patience that’s more interested in Beaton’s personality quirks than his career.
The photographer, writer, painter, and set and costume designer who died in 1980 was a three-time Oscar- and four-time Tony Award- winner for productions including Gigi and My Fair Lady (both the film and play of the latter). But even though Beaton’s lack of a defined job path is addressed in the film’s very first exchange—“I’m afraid that’s been my problem for a very long time,” he responds when an interviewer asks him to identify his main profession—these achievements are little more than footnotes throughout the 98-minute runtime.
Instead, Vreeland focuses on Beaton’s foppishness. Though he had an affair with Greta Garbo, Beaton was a “terrible, terrible homosexualist,” which in his diary he professed to “try so hard not to be.” There’s no torture attending this comment, however; no less than three times is he referred to as a “dandy” here, and Beaton appears to have been comfortable being fey, with plenty of photos showing him to have been a stylish dresser and even some- times wearing makeup and women’s clothes. Footage of Beaton’s interviews—with his English accent adding to the effect—seemed to verify one photographer’s colorful description of him as “that foppish dandy, that fondant piece of icing.” Vreeland also puts more emphasis on his heartbreak than his loves, barely mentioning two of the men he was involved with before jumping to comments about the end of the relationships.
In addition to footage of Beaton himself and the standard (and mostly boring) commentary from people who worked with or befriended him, the film offers narration from his diaries (read by Rupert Everett) as well as scores of his exquisite photographs for Vogue. Famed subjects include Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, and Hepburns Audrey and Katharine; for 40 years, he was the favored photographer of the royal family. Though these are all fascinating on their own, the parade of images is dulled by Beaton’s self- descriptive comments such as, “Oh yes, I can hate, and I can hate unreasonably.” Others corroborate his “bitchiness” as the documentary becomes more and more worshipful. Isn’t it charming how nasty Beaton could be?
There’s precisely one idea that may keep rolling around your head as you watch Love, Cecil: According to Hamish Bowles, international editor for Vogue, Beaton “continually embraced what was new” and that “the mind boggles to think what he could have made in today’s internet/Instagram/ selfie world. I’d love to see a Beaton portrait of Kim Kardashian,” Bowles says. “And I’d particularly like to read the diary entry.”
Love, Cecil opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.