Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 28, 2018 5:40 am 
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Portrait of a style-maker

Lisa Immordino Vreeland has made successful films about fashion maven Diana Vreeland (her husband's grandmother), and art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Now she has made one about the photographer Cecil Beaton. Like the Vreeland film, it has an accompanying coffee table book. And this is a beautiful film. Beaton, famously a snob and social climber whose hates were as strong as his loves, turns out to have done far more than photograph celebrities and the British royal family. He was prodigiously creative, writing, drawing, keeping endless journals, producing 38 books, and designing stage and movie costumes - notably for My Fair Lady and Gigi, for which he won three Oscars. Beaton's career extended for half a century. He was one of the chief taste-makers and style-setters for England and America in the 1930's and 1940's, which happen to be times of beautiful style. Love, Cecil, with its use of special layouts and tints, itself has a beautiful look. It is a revelation, and worthy of its subject.

There are numerous filmed interviews with Beaton, and his diaries are read from by Rupert Everett. Beaton came from a wealthy but, to his eternal dismay, undistinguished family, essentially of tradesmen, far from the aristocracy he aspired to - hence his pursuit of the elegant and famous, his creation of styles and environments to accompany them, and his delight at becoming the favorite portrait photographer, first for Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), and thereafter for the whole English royal family.

Beaton was taught photography by his nanny, and made many posed photographs of his sisters and his mother. He attended Harrow, and thus met some of the kind of people he wished to associate with. In the twenties he was at Cambridge, but, wholly without academic skills or interests, never attended a lecture. He went on taking photographs, and was known as a flamboyant esthete. After making a stir with a first exhibition in London, he went to New York and joined the Condé Nast organization as a designer and illustrator and fashion photographer for Vogue. But in 1938 he was forced to resign, and left in disgrace, for inserting some tiny-but-still-legible antisemitic phrases (including the word 'kike') into a layout about New York society. Immordino Vreeland reports this incident in some detail, even showing the layout up close with the two handwritten uses of the word "kike," and the cover of the issue of Vogue, a symphony of blue, of which over 30,000 copies were destroyed. It remains somewhat puzzling - was not antisemitism then in its heyday? Were the words truly antisemitic? But in any case, despite the support of Condé Nast, Beaton was in disgrace, and returned to England.

He was saved by the royal family, because it was then that he was hired to photograph Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen, and it went very well. Later he was engaged to do war photography, and traveled round the world in WWII shooting war scenes, as the film points out, from a uniquely aesthetic point of view. This is one of the revelations of a film that has plenty of them, to see the beauty of these photographs and note Beaton's courage and resilience during the war years. Fluffy on the outside, he was steely within.

This film also describes the man's loves, male and female, and his role as a host, notably at two longtime English country residences of exceptional atmosphere and beauty. From 1930 to 1945, Beaton leased Ashcombe House in Wiltshire, where his weekends were busy and jammed with interesting people. He was rather devastated when the owner chose to take over the place and he had to give up the world he had created there - we seen some interiors and big, busy gatherings of people having a good time: the magic of l'entre-deux-guerres extended into the forced frivolity of war-escaping. In 1947, he bought Reddish House, set in 2.5 acres of gardens, approximately 5 miles to the east in Broad Chalke, and this remained home base till his death there, following a stroke, in 1980. There is lots more, including Beaton's passionate friendship with Greta Garbo, whom he even wanted to marry. He enraged this famously secretive person by publishing a book about their "relationship."

Beaton was a flamboyant but elegant dresser in later years, as we see. He was gay at a time when originally it was illegal to be so. His longtime butler is heard from, reporting that he had a gay sex life pursued "very discreetly," being regularly visited by a gentleman of color.

It's impossible in a short review to do more than touch on Beaton's prodigious accomplishments. He sometimes thought he was spreading himself too thin, but this film shows how well he drew, how nice his magazine layouts were - he triumphed during the time when magazines mattered - and how attractive were his books, and, of course, his stage and film designs that show a flair for fashion far beyond that of the usual fashion photographer who only documents. He was more of a style-setter and taste-maker than we realized and, since of course younger people will probably not even know who he was, this film is essential viewing for anyone interested in the taste and style and photography of the twentieth century.

As Stephen Farber says in his Hollywood Reporter review of Love, Cecil, this film " trains an affectionate but unsentimental eye on Beaton." It is an admirable documentary that is thorough while avoiding the extremes of either scandal-mongering or hagiography. In its multiple layouts of Beaton images (too swiftly gone by: but see Immordino Vreeland's accompanying book, Love, Cecil: A Journey with Cecil Beaton) this film achieves a level of taste and style of its own that one too often misses in today's non-fiction films.

Love, Cecil, 98 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 2017, showing also at Hamptons, DOC NYC and Palm Springs festivals. Its US theatrical release begins 29 Jun. 2018.


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