Opening today: 'Love, Cecil,' doc on brilliant photographer, painter, set and costume designer Cecil Beaton
Lisa Immordino Vreeland's film explores artistic, personal highs and lows of one of the 20th century's most remarkable talents
Fans of the Netflix series The Crown will recall moments from season 2 when a certain Royal photographer appears on the scene, camera at the ready, sometimes quoting Wordsworth.
The man was Cecil Beaton and like most of the characters on the series, he was a real person. For those unfamiliar with Beaton The Crown can serve as an introduction, but for a full portrait of the artist in fascinating detail there is the new documentary Love, Cecil.
The film directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland reveals Beaton to be the quintessential multi-hyphenate -- not only a photographer, but a painter, costume designer, interior and set designer, author and diarist.
He didn't care about cricket. He was thinking about Lily Elsie's eyelashes.
"A lot of people don't know enough about him. And this is why it's fun to make a movie like this because you can really show the texture of a person," the director said over iced tea in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. "He's touched upon so many different things in the 20th century."
Love, Cecil opens today (July 20) at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles (the director will appear for a Q&A tonight following the 7:15pm showing). It likewise opens in Cambridge, Mass. today, and expands in the coming days and weeks to New Orleans, San Francisco, New York's Symphony Space, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego and many other cities. (Details here).
Beaton (1904-1980) was raised in Hampstead, England, the son of a prosperous timber merchant. His was a family of means, though a rung below the gentry.
"It was very hard because growing up in an upper-middle class English family back then, you lived a certain life. There were certain rules. You didn't overstep them," Vreeland noted. "[But] he was doing that constantly."
Beaton's natural inclinations took him away from mere commerce to a more romantic world of dreamy aestheticism. He would capture those early days of fancy with an apparatus provided to him by his father, who otherwise looked with mystification at his son's predilections.
"His father gave him his first camera at a young age," the director pointed out. In short order Beaton would display a preternatural talent.
He became part of the Bright Young Things in 1920s London, a group composed mainly of those of higher social rank than he. They made for excellent photographic subjects.
"It all happened very early and very quickly for him," Vreeland said. "If you read his diaries he's achieved success at quite a young age... He ended up photographing everyone. They were wealthy families. These were the most important names in that class."
Assignments for British Vogue led to work across the pond for American Vogue. He was soon dispatched to Hollywood.
"He was turned on to all the publicity agents at all the different studios. He did want to work on films, so this was his dream to be out here," Vreeland observed.
The film delves into a scandal during his time at Vogue that nearly cost Beaton his career. His prospects revived with the advent of World War II when Britain's Ministry of Information commissioned him to photograph the homefront. He wound up taking some of the most iconic images of the war, some of children victimized in the blitz, others of virile young military men.
"The World War II [images] are my favorite," Vreeland shared. "I like the graphic design of it just because they're these square photographs. I love the homoerotic imagery because he was showing a different side of the war. He was not showing the front line. He was humanizing in a different way. He was communicating the physical hardship and what the day-to-day was of the war to the world."
His reputation ascended further as he became a favorite of the British Royal Family, taking magnificent photographs of Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mum.
"It was really the Royal photographs and the war years that really put him a completely different class of photography and uplifted and upgraded him," said Vreeland.
Today, Beaton's war photographs and street photography are less known and his reputation in that medium largely rests on Royal and celebrity pictures. He was not only a chronicler of the famous, but an intimate of many of those he photographed.
"He was so much part of everything... [His work] has almost like a reportage type of feeling to it," Vreeland said, adding by way of example, "He was friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas and he would go to their house outside of Paris and photograph them. But he would have contact sheets and negatives of a whole weekend because he was friends with them. He's showing us the 20th century, the lives of certain great people that we otherwise would not have gotten access to."
Apart from photography, Beaton also found success in the theater, earning seven Tony nominations and four wins for scenic and costume design. For all his professional achievements though, his romantic life was less of a success. Love, Cecil documents Beaton's many loves -- mostly men, including unrequited ardor for art collector Peter Watson. He also had relationships with women, including Greta Garbo.
His private thoughts are communicated in the film through excerpts from his diaries, voiced by the actor Rupert Everett.
"There is the man who is human, who is ambitious, who makes mistakes, who is not capable of really having love," Vreeland remarked of her subject. "Those are all real stories and those are all things we can identify with."
Love, Cecil is spiced with Beaton's sharp commentary about many of the celebrated people he knew -- Noël Coward, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Taylor ("[She] is everything I dislike") and some especially tart words for Katharine Hepburn ("She has no generosity, no heart.").
He adored another Hepburn -- Audrey -- and designed spectacular costumes for her and the cast of My Fair Lady. That 1964 film would earn him two Oscars -- for costume design and for art direction and set decoration. But he feuded with director George Cukor.
"It was a power struggle, I think, on set," Vreeland commented. "And George Cukor clearly wanted to have the power. And Beaton kept walking around -- because he was doing his day job of doing the costumes and the sets -- but he was also walking around photographing. And I think it just drove Cukor nuts."
Love, Cecil marks the third feature documentary for Vreeland. Her first, 2011's Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, focused on the famed fashion editor who was also the director's grandmother-in-law. Her 2015 film Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, explored another person who traveled in the beau monde.
"Of my three subjects in my three films, Beaton's the least known. But he certainly is the most creative," Vreeland affirmed. "And if you see how creative he was, that's a story worth telling -- because I do want people to walk away with something. I want there to be a takeaway. I want there to be a little tug at your heart at the end. You can tell people feel for him. The words he says at the end, 'Be daring, be different.' Audiences are like, 'Yes! Be daring, be different!'"
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.