'Love, Cecil': Film Review | Telluride 2017

Deft tribute to a dandy.

Cecil Beaton, the Oscar-winning set and costume designer of 'My Fair Lady' and 'Gigi,' emerges as a colorful and sometimes controversial personality in this comprehensive documentary.

Most younger audience members probably would draw a blank at the name Cecil Beaton, but he was a major figure in the arts for almost 60 years. Love, Cecil, one of the most engaging documentaries shown at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, should help to restore a bit of his reputation. 

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland made earlier docs about fashion maven Diana Vreeland (her husband’s grandmother) and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, so she’s revisiting comfortable terrain here and trains an affectionate but unsentimental eye on Beaton. He is probably best known for designing Oscar-winning films Gigi and My Fair Lady, and the film opens with the famous Ascot sequence from My Fair Lady — a panorama of stunning black-and-white costumes in Edwardian England, certainly one of the most striking musical sequences ever filmed.

The doc quickly reminds us that Beaton’s talents went beyond his memorable costumes for period films. In a way he was frustrated by his own wide-ranging interests, and he wondered if he might have been more successful if he had concentrated on just one field. But Beaton was too restless for that, and he succeeded as a photographer, a theater and film designer and a gifted writer in a series of published diaries. The diaries form an important part of this film; they are read by Rupert Everett, who perfectly captures the imperious and witty Beaton spirit.

As Beaton himself said, he was “tormented with ambition” and was determined not to be “just an ordinary, anonymous person.” From his days at Cambridge in the early 1920s, he made it clear that he was destined to stand out, sometimes dressing in drag or blithely playing the dandy. He had male lovers during that period, though he didn’t always choose his partners wisely. Beaton quickly became a photographer for Vogue and other magazines, though a notorious incident almost derailed his career. Horrific anti-Semitic overtones appeared in a photo montage that he created in 1938, and the magazine had to recall and shred copies of that issue. That incident reminds us that upper-class British society was often suffused with anti-Semitism. Beaton apologized and redeemed himself with the war photography that he did during World War II, traveling around the world to chronicle the conflict.

He also became the official photographer for the Queen Mother and other members of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II after her coronation. Beaton's celebrity photos finally cemented his reputation. One of his surprising subjects was Greta Garbo, who allowed him to take a series of pictures of her after her retirement, almost the only notable photographs of the reclusive superstar that ever appeared. Although Garbo was inevitably dissatisfied with the pictures, she had an ongoing friendship with Beaton, and many believe that they had a romantic relationship as well. Leslie Caron, the star of Gigi, confidently declares that there was a romance between the two. After Beaton’s death in 1980, three photographs were found in his room — one of Garbo and two of his male lovers.

Beaton’s later career was focused on theater and film, and Caron for one contends that his contributions to the visual style of Gigi were crucial. The same is true of My Fair Lady, even though he and the film’s director, George Cukor, did not get along. A TV interview with Cukor makes that clear. Although many people who knew Beaton have died, there are telling interviews with photographer David Bailey, artist David Hockney and designer Isaac Mizrahi, as well as Beaton’s biographer Hugo Vickers.

Vreeland’s willingness to include painful as well as flattering details is what gives Love, Cecil its punch. It seems that Beaton never found much personal happiness or fulfillment, but his striking visual talents allowed him to achieve that fierce youthful goal of escaping the constrictions of ordinary life. This sharply edited chronicle should help to burnish his image.

Director-producer: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Mark Lee, Jennifer Blei Stockman, Debi Wisch, Jay Peterson, Jack Turner, Bobby Korndrat, Charles Finch
Director of photography: Shane Sigler
Editor: Bernadine Colish
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

99 minutes