Film Review: Love, Cecil

The dazzlingly talented Edwardian Renaissance man Cecil Beaton, best known for his Oscar-winning costumes for 'My Fair Lady,' has been given a savvy and satisfying documentary comeback.
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I first became aware of this documentary’s subject as what might be described as a rather recherche child in Honolulu, while visiting my beloved downtown library. I took down from the shelf a volume entitledCecil Beaton’s Scrapbook (1937), and was never the same again. For within those pages was a wealth of beauty and visual as well as verbal opulence, indisputable evidence of this British lifelong dandy’s breathtaking polymath gifts: drawings, photographs and written descriptions of that fabulous era’s most gorgeous and/or intriguing figures. The name seemed to ring a bell and I made the connection—this artist was also responsible for the most dazzling movie spectacle I had ever seen up to that time: the Ascot Gavotte sequence from My Fair Lady, with its hordes of exquisitely dressed toffs and grande dames, strutting in their Belle Epoque finery, which the designer recalled from his own childhood.

A lifelong obsession was set into place, and I devoured everything about Beaton (1904-80) I could find, particularly the copious diaries he steadfastly kept from his early days as a student at Cambridge, dreaming of a glamorous career with maybe the Ballets Russes, through the years in which that goal was reached (to put it mildly), famously contributing toVogue magazine and designing costumes and sets for several striking plays, films and operas. Then came a much less hectic, elegiac final stage wherein he had a stroke that impaired the use of his drawing/writing hand but still continued to create.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland‘s sprawling, often sparkling and surprisingly comprehensive film covers all of this and more, with Rupert Everett lending his slightly exhausted-sounding, aristocratic tones as the voice of Beaton, often quoting from those diaries. Talent, which Beaton certainly possessed—as witness the fact that many of his magnificently empathetic portraits of iconic stars (Garbo, Monroe, both Hepburns, Maria Callas, etc.) became the most iconic representations of them—is, as they say, never enough. Luckily, Beaton possessed enough ferocious ambition, maneuvering ability and tireless energy to at first parlay highly placed London social connections to his professional advantage and then sustain at least three different and very long careers throughout most of the last century. Love, Cecil brims with his photography, mostly in ravishing black-and-white, which immediately transports you to another far more elegant and pristine world, his world.

Career-wise, I once aspired to be him—maybe I even still do—but definitely not on a personal level, a reaction gleaned here and from his own diaries, unexpurgated, posthumous and often vicious editions of which have been published over the last two decades. Beaton was insecure, petty, downright bitchy at times, tortured about his own homosexuality in a much less welcoming time than now. Oh, and anti-Semitic, which was revealed by him in a spectacular act of hubris when he included viciously bigoted graffiti in a Vogue article, thinking that the tiny margin scribbles would somehow go unnoticed. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell caught them, however, and blew the whistle in his daily column, causing a deep rift between Beaton and his long-term employer, publisher Condé Nast.

All of his driven careerism would seem to leave little time for a rewarding personal life; although he had a number of affairs with men and women, Beaton was basically a loner, which he later came to regret. The two major lights in his love life were his own total obsession, ever-elusive Greta Garbo, whom he deemed the most beautiful of woman and seriously wanted to marry, and, following their involvement, a much younger gay man named Kin. The former often seemed to lead him on a merry chase before severing ties with him forever for what she perceived as exploitation when he had too many privately taken photos of her published. Kin seems to have really gotten to Beaton’s sometimes impenetrable-seeming heart, and their affair’s end devastated the older man, no matter that many of his friends deemed his young lover a user.

You come away from the film feeling that Cecil Beaton represented the very essence of the fashion business, which continues to celebrate, be inspired by and imitate his huge legacy: absolutely exquisite and impeccable on the surface, often hiding a much darker and uglier reality.

Click cast and crew information.