Monday, July 2, 2018

Love, Cecil

Love, Cecil poster


"I started out with very little talent but I was so tormented with ambition." 
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Cecil Beaton was many things. He was a photographer, a writer, a painter, a set decorator, a costume designer and a socialite. But if we were to put him in one master category it would have to be that of artist. Beaton was an aesthete to the highest degree. Born with an appreciation for all things beautiful, Beaton was drawn to art in its many forms. His first love was the theater and he loved looking at photographic portraits of stage actresses. This led to his personal ambition to photograph them himself. He set out to learn photography but a traditional education was not for him. Beaton did poorly in school and rarely attended lectures while in college. Everything he learned about art was self-taught. He mastered techniques in photography through sheer determination. Before the word "selfies" ever became part of our daily lexicon, Beaton made taking self-portraits an almost daily practice. His two sisters were his models and with them he learned how to master the art of styling, staging, and posing.

Beaton went on to have a long and industrious career in fashion and art. He was a tireless worker, always on the go and game for anything. His work took him to Hollywood, a place that brought him an opportunity to work with some of the best subjects in the world. Beaton stylized the sets and costumes for films like Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). He shot iconic portraits of legendary stars like Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Sylvia Sidney, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Leslie Caron, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Barbra Streisand, Merle Oberon, Lillian Gish and Grace Kelly. His favorite model was Greta Garbo. Not only was she the ideal subject for his photography, he was immensely drawn to her as a person. The two had tumultuous friendship which led to a brief affair. Beaton was a complicated fellow, never settling down and besides his relationship with Garbo, he preferred the company of men. He wasn't afraid to be a dandy in a time when homosexuality was illegal in his home country of England.

Cecil Beaton's portrait of Gary Cooper


Cecil Beaton's portrait of Greta Garbo

New from Zeitgeist Films and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Love, Cecil chronicles the life and career of the man whose style made an indelible mark on the 20th century. We learn about his often tumultuous relationships with his family growing up and with his friends, lovers and collaborators. There is even footage of George Cukor discussing how the two didn't get along while making My Fair Lady. The film includes interviews with a variety of experts including magazine editors, photographers, historians, designers, museum curators, artists and people who knew Beaton well including his biographer, a former model, his former butler and the director of the first documentary on Beaton's life entitled Beaton by Bailey. We also hear from Beaton himself through archival footage and from his journal entries, read by actor Rupert Everett.

This is a multi-faceted look at an artist who had the capacity to delight and to shock. He was opinionated, disapproving and sometimes rude. As a contributor to Vogue, he once made the mistake of incorporating an anti-Semitic slur into one of his article sketches. The issue had to be scrapped. To make up for his grievous error, Beaton contributed to the WWII effort as a war photographer. He traveled all over the world, working tirelessly and was even in a serious airplane crash. Beaton's work was published in many outlets including one on the cover of LIFE magazine.



Classic film enthusiasts will be interested to learn about Beaton's contributions to the visual spectacle of two very important mid-century films: My Fair Lady and Gigi. Beaton worked on others but these are the two focused on in this documentary. I was particularly taken with the beautiful portraits Beaton shot of many of my favorite actors and actresses.



Love, Cecil is a dynamic exploration of an artistic genius whose passion for beauty influenced everything he did. Highly recommended.



Love, Cecil recently opened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. It will be playing in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta and many other cities across the country through July and August and into the fall. Visit Zeitgeist Films' official website for dates and locations.

Recommended viewing: Pair Love, Cecil with another Zeitgest Film documentary Bill Cunningham: New York (2010). I found these two figures, both fashion photographers, both complicated individuals, to be very similar in many ways.

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