Cecil Beaton wore many hats in his lifetime, costume designer, writer, illustrator, provocateur, book jacket designer, and photographer among them. He excelled in all these roles, a fact all the more remarkable since he was self-taught and never known as a technical master in any art form. Instead, Beaton had a gift for creating striking images, sometimes with himself as subject, sometimes featuring the greatest celebrities of the day.
Love, Cecil, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland (she also directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, as well as 10 episodes of the TV series Art of Style) is saturated with images created by Beaton, accompanied by commentary and interpretation from a number of celebrities, clips of interviews with Beaton, and narration of Beaton’s own words (he was a voluminous diarist) by Rupert Everett. The work speaks for itself—it’s always remarkable and frequently brilliant—and the various talking heads do well enough in offering up their interpretations of the character and ambition of a fiercely self-made artist whose self-destructive impulses sometimes impeded his career.
Beaton used his photographic talents to insinuate himself into the Bright Young Things, a group of rich young people aptly parodied in Stephen Fry’s 2003 film of the same name. Having made his name as a society photographer, he soon began working for British Vogue, then moved to America where he photographed street life and Hollywood celebrities and worked for Vanity Fair and Vogue. Then he blew it all up by inserting anti-Semitic phrases (tiny, but legible) into an illustration for Vogue. The magazine’s publisher, Conde Nast, was not amused—he recalled the issue and fired Beaton.
No one knows why he did it—Beaton himself claimed to be baffled by his own behavior—but my best guess is that Beaton was trying to display the kind of arrogance which was forgiven when committed by the Bright Young Things. Regardless, after about a year and a half of being unemployable, his career was revived first by the patronage of the British royal family, and then by his service for the Ministry of War Information during World War II (some believe his photos helped convince the United States to enter the war).
For people who don’t pay a lot of attention to photography (and that’s most people), Beaton’s best-known work is contained in two Hollywood movies: Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). Say what you will about the story of the former (a girl is being trained to be a high-class prostitute and this is considered family fare?) and the casting of the latter (what is Audrey Hepburn doing among all those British stage actors?), there’s no fault to be found in the costume designs of either film. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed: Beaton won Oscars for the costume design for both films, and also for the art decoration/set decoration of My Fair Lady (shared with Gene Allen and George James Hopkins). He also won seven Tony Awards for Costume Design and Scenic Design, perhaps most notably the Costume Design award in 1970 for Coco.
Beaton was a mercurial character who didn’t hesitate to share his opinions on anyone and everyone. To pick just two examples, he says he despised Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for their “vulgarity, commonness, and crass bad taste” and likened Katherine Hepburn’s appearance to a “weakened piece of decaying matter” and a “dried up boot.” Even his friends call him “a mass of contradictions” and note how much he seemed to be playing a character, with moods that could shift on a dime. If Love, Cecil never gets to the bottom of who Cecil Beaton actually was, it may be because that task is fundamentally impossible. | Sarah Boslaugh
Love, Cecil is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include over two hours of deleted scenes (interviews with the likes of Leslie Caron, David Hockney, and Isaac Mizrahi) and the trailers for this and two other films.