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Bridget Foley’s Diary: Cecil Beaton: The Height of Creativity

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“It all started with the photographs.” So says Lisa Immordino Vreeland about the lavish career of Cecil Beaton, the subject of her documentary, “Love, Cecil,” opening today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Beaton was one of the great creatives of the 20th century — photographer, illustrator, writer, diarist, scrapbooker, costume and set designer, aesthete, dandy, raconteur. Immordino Vreeland tells his story through his own words, on film and as narrated by Rupert Everett; interviews with people who knew him or have studied him, and through his glorious work. She treats that work with a mesmerizing, sometimes eerie lyricism. Anyone who loves fashion or who is intrigued by the power than can pulse from a single visual will be smitten — by the work. The man is a more complicated embrace.

Beaton was born into Edwardian England, an era which, decades later, would figure prominently in his career. He came of age in the youth-centric whirl of the Twenties. “I started out with very little talent, and I was so tormented by ambition,” he tells us via Everett, who offers wide-ranging observations from Beaton’s copious diaries. That ambition was twofold, personal and professional. The humdrum of the upper-middle-class life into which he was born bore scant fascination for Beaton; from early adolescence, he aspired to fancier circles. Yet home did offer some nascent possibilities,starting with his mother’s dressing table where an assortment of cosmetic wonders opened his eyes to the joys of transformation via dressing up. One day, Beaton snuck into her bedroom and “painted my face.” This amusement had fallout, outraging his father and establishing a template for that relationship that would play out through the years as a push-pull of love and disappointment.

Yet Beaton’s ambitions weren’t to be denied, nor his precocious orchestration of upward mobility thwarted. He started sending notices of his mother’s social engagements to various magazines, which often took the bait, and when his younger sisters were old enough, he took to styling and photographing them in curated situations. “I think that when at so young an age, you have this ambition inside of you — you’re sending out pictures of your mother and sisters to different society magazines, it’s completely orchestrated by you under different names — that’s a lot to think about for [an adolescent],” says Immordino Vreeland, during a conversation at her New York apartment, its walls featuring ample evidence of her love of photography.

Early on, Beaton saw photography not as the ultimate career to which he aspired, but as a means to an end. Obsessed with the theater and the actresses who graced its stages, he wanted to act, write plays, design for the theater — any and all of the above — but he needed entrée. He could take pictures all on his own. He said, “The only thing I could do without being invited was to indulge my photographic hobby.”

Eventually, Beaton gained exposure to that exquisite subculture that roared through London during the Twenties, the Bright Young Things. He chronicled its sparkling denizens and, through his friendship with fellow aesthete, the aristocratic Stephen Tennant, became one of them — with a caveat: He had to work for a living; they didn’t. That sense of always being on the outside would follow him through life — even if the life itself looked pretty remarkable.

That was perhaps one of Beaton’s demons — he aspired to the good life and, upon achieving it, always sought the next rung up, the better life. Along the way, he made countless contacts and found endless professional opportunities. But for one heinous error, his work seemed never to disappoint. His creative output was remarkable, including a singular illustration style, rich with whimsy and charm, and photographs that spanned milieus and genres. A go-to photographer for both American and British Vogue, Beaton had a mesmerizing surrealist period inspired by the German expressionists. He continued shooting portraits for five decades, his subjects the cognoscenti from all walks of life — actors, artists, socials, musicians, athletes, even feuding factions of the royal Windsors — two Queens Elizabeth and their wayward kin, the duke and duchess. When the World War II came, Beaton knew he would make a “sad sack” soldier but “wanted to be useful.” He thus turned his lens toward the British war effort, along the way achieving a certain redemption. Postwar, theater and film projects reflected his love for the bygone era of his birth, the Belle Époque. In London, he designed the costumes for a lavish production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Later, he had two Hollywood stunners, in 1958 designing costumes for “Gigi,” starring Leslie Caron, and, in 1964, delivering his most famous work of all, “My Fair Lady,” for which he did both costumes and sets.

Immordino Vreeland became attracted to Beaton through his photographs. As a collector, she’d long been drawn to his work. Then, when developing an earlier project (about her famous grandmother-in-law) “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” she saw the film “Beaton by Bailey” (as in David Bailey), in which Beaton’s naughty audacity is on full display. She was fascinated. “I said, ‘God! He really could be great for a film,’” Immordino Vreeland recalls. “He had an attitude about him, you could see that he was a player.”

When the time was right, Immordino Vreeland immersed herself in Beaton research — and there was tons from which to cull. “I dug down deep, but that’s what I enjoy,” she says. Beaton himself left troves of material, now entrusted to numerous institutions: the Beaton archive at Sotheby’s London, St. John’s College in Cambridge, the Imperial War Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the U.S. and U.K. Vogue archives.

In addition to maintaining thousands of photographs and illustrations, Beaton was a relentless scrapbooker and diarist, and authored 38 books. Immordino Vreeland read every published word but had to pass on the unpublished journals. “I didn’t understand his handwriting,” she says. “He never lifts his pen up from the paper. I actually sat with [authorized biographer and literary trustee] Hugo Vickers and we tried a couple of pages. I would say one thing and he would say [something else].”

In addition to the Diana Vreeland film, Immordino Vreeland also did the documentary “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.” Asked if dealing with such visual subjects is particularly intimidating for a filmmaker, she offers an immediate “no,” that the challenge with any subject is to approach him or her honestly. “I always wanted to tell the most accurate story, the real story. Beaton had the most flaws of any of my other characters.” A sadness comes across as well, more subtle than overt, at least until his later diary entries. When speaking about his love life, Beaton sounds resigned. “I’m really a terrible, terrible homosexualist and try so hard not to be,” he said. Apparently, he was more discreet than closeted, with the great loves of his life unrequited. In seeking partners, he was, according to Vickers, “a pretty bad chooser.” Beaton was likely bisexual and, when it came to women, he aimed high: Greta Garbo, with whom he seems to have genuinely been in love.

Though Immordino Vreeland’s take on Beaton is more homage than expose, she mostly presents provocative information while leaving judgement to the viewer. Along the way, she doesn’t ignore his faults. His interviews and writings display a bite that ranged from amusing to nasty, sometimes inexplicably so, though he once claimed that some forays into bitchiness were just for show. In an interview, Beaton admitted, “Oh, yes, I can hate. I can hate unreasonably,” the acknowledgment proffered with a hint of pride. He “despised [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton] for their vulgarity, commonness and crass bad taste.” Katharine Hepburn was “a dried-up boot.” Arthur Evelyn Waugh “thinks that I’m a nasty piece of goods and, oh, brother, I feel the same way about him.” As for Noel Coward, Beaton offered a more introspective take on his disdain: “I admire everything about his work. Why, then, have I hated him? Perhaps I was envious of the success of his career.”

Although Beaton did impressive work in Hollywood, he grew to loathe it, somewhat ironic given that he and Hollywood existed for artful storytelling, invention and reinvention. “There was this artificiality to it,” Immordino Vreeland says. “I think there is always the sense of him being such a snob.”

Yet snobbery wasn’t Beaton’s greatest failing, unless one considers snobbery a gateway to more sinister flaws. For years, Beaton’s relationship with Condé Nast flourished, his assignments plentiful and varied. For one issue of American Vogue, in 1938, he illustrated a piece, “The New Left Wing in New York Society.” The drawing was highly detailed, with minute touches here and there, including at least one anti-Semitic slur, the k-word, written in minuscule lettering. Someone at Condé Nast caught it, but too late; the issue had gone to print and 130,000 copies had to be destroyed. Beaton apologized but never explained himself, nor does the film offer perspective on what his personal motivation might have been. He resigned from his contract, and worked very little for the next 18 months.

Then one day, a call came asking if he would be interested in photographing then-Queen Elizabeth (mother of the current queen). The answer was obvious, and started Beaton on a trajectory that would lead to photographing the coronation of the 25-year-old Elizabeth ll. Yet it wasn’t his work for the Windsors that restored Beaton as a fully employable creative, but his wartime photographs. Whether the glamour and sensuality of some of those images proved controversial isn’t discussed; a picture of little Eileen Dunne, an injured, big-eyed four-year-old made the cover of Life magazine, and helped fuel U.S. support for the war effort.

Immordino Vreeland conducted numerous interviews for the film, with Beaton friends and acquaintances, scholars and admirers influenced by his work. “There’s truth in fantasy, and I think Beaton was one of the pioneers of that concept,” says photographer Tim Walker. “He’s an aesthete and he’s looking for beautiful things even in extremes and despair and hardship,” says Hamish Bowles, in reference to the war work.

Penelope Tree met Beaton at Truman Capote’s legendary Black & White Ball, its theme inspired in part by the glorious Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.” “The first person who asks her to dance — she is the youngest person there — is Cecil Beaton,” Immordino Vreeland explains. “Just the fact that he spun her around the room, it welcomed her into that world. Yes, she was from a well-known social family, but the way that she looked [dancing] in that dress, he changed the whole night for her.” Tree retained admiration for Beaton. Not so Bailey, who, despite his film project, admits to not liking him. (Feeling mutual, according to Tree: “I think Beaton absolutely loathed Bailey.”) Long inspired by Beaton, notes, “That incredible book ‘The Glass of Fashion’ changed my life.”

Footage of Beaton’s beloved Ashcombe Estate near Salisbury recurs throughout the film. He leased the house while still in his 20s, and it became refuge, inspiration and site of endless glamorous revelry. Immordino Vreeland understands his obsession with the place, and was grateful when Ashcombe’s current owner Guy Ritchie allowed her to shoot there. “There is something magical about that land,” she says.

Magic — the word surfaces several times in the film. “No one has had the ability to wave the wand and scatter the magic over somebody like Cecil Beaton,” says Sir Roy Strong, executive director of the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A.

Certainly, there is lasting magic to Beaton’s work, which Immordino Vreeland has put on compelling view in “Love, Cecil.” “For him,” she says, “life was about creativity.”

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