Cecil Beaton, the subject of a new documentary called “Love, Cecil,” says he was determined not to be “just an ordinary, anonymous person.” To that end he distinguished himself as a diarist, painter, interior designer and an Oscar–winning costume designer but it was as a photographer that he made his grandest statements.
Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (related by marriage to fashionista Diana Vreeland) presents a portrait of a serial multi-tasker, a man “tormented with ambition” who wonders aloud if he might have been more successful had he focussed on one discipline over the others. Still, it is hard to imagine the restless spirit shown in the film as anything but creatively unsettled. His iconic portraits of everyone from Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe to Mick Jagger and Queen Elizabeth are world famous but equally impressive, perhaps more so are his wartime photographs, pictures that captured the horrors of the German Blitz. His startling photo of 3-year-old bombing victim Eileen Dunne, laying in a hospital, clutching a ragged teddy bear became famous in the day, is thought to have helped push America into the war and remains an indelibly powerful image seventy-five years later.
The doc also showcases Beaton’s unsettled private life. Controversial, outspoken and publicly vengeful, he was once also fired from American Vogue for inserting anti-Semitic phrases into an illustration; an act he admits was inexcusable. His romantic life is lightly touched on. Affairs with Garbo and various men never did led to lasting love, a fact that hints at the great sadness that lay just beneath his polished exterior.
In the 1920s Beaton was one of the Bright Young Things, a bohemian group of young aristocrats and artists who exemplified the excesses of Britain’s Jazz Age. He was an active member and documenter of their short lived heyday but the spirit of creativity that fuelled his exploits as a young man stayed with him until his death in 1980 at age seventy-six.
“Love, Cecil” is a traditional talking head doc that features notables like David Bailey, designer Manolo Blahnik and artist David Hockney. It moves chronologically through the man’s life and there is none of the style Beaton brought to his own life on display in the filmmaking but narration by Rupert Everett, lifted directly from the photographer’s own diaries, brings intimacy to the proceedings.