By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Whether it means to or not, the last thing the documentary “Love, Cecil” will do is get you to, well, love Cecil.
Cecil in this case is Cecil Beaton, photographer, author, designer, social butterfly and stylist extraordinaire. To her credit, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland reminds us that Beaton was virtually incapable of making an aesthetically clumsy choice.
Whether it was photographing the beautiful and famous or creating the Oscar-winning costumes and production design for the movie “My Fair Lady,” Beaton’s taste was as impeccable as it was original.
He saw things as only he could and one of his gifts was to get us to see them that way, too. The celebrated writer Daphne du Maurier with her head in a bell jar like some exotic du Maurier under glass? Sure. A bevy of Bright Young Things (as wealthy Brit socialites were called in the ‘20s) cavorting in costume? Of course.
Beaton’s long and illustrious career spanned over half a century and through it all he only made one serious misstep — one that remains as mysterious as it was egregious. At some point during the ‘30s, he tossed off an article for Vogue and somewhere in his accompanying illustration, he included an ugly anti-Semitic slur.
He lost his job and didn’t work for almost two years (the recent Roseanne gaffe comes to mind.) The movie, which draws from Beaton’s extensive diaries, read by Rupert Everett, never explains. He was rescued by the Royal Family, who hired him in the late ‘30s for a series of portraits, and, oddly enough, by World War II.
Chastened, perhaps, by his post-Vogue ostracism, Beaton’s photos of a Blitz-torn London have a humanity much of his other work lacks. He could still be naughty — an, um cheeky arrangement of some soldiers’ buff butts in well-pressed khakis — but there is a feeling in the images, a compassion that cuts through any perceived irony or camp.
Once he regained his place among those who mattered (to Beaton, at least), he never left it. He had his favorites: Garbo may be the only woman he ever had sex with. But he could be bitingly acerbic and often was. Of Katharine Hepburn, he notes, “No heart, no grace, no generosity. She’s a dried-up boot.”
He was similarly, um, dissatisfied with Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward and the Burtons (Liz ‘n’ Dick).
Alas, “Love, Cecil” is similarly dissatisfying. It’s mentioned in passing that his brother committed suicide. Nothing more. His abrasive relationship with director George Cukor (“My Fair Lady”) is touched on but never explored. At one point, Truman Capote and Diana Vreeland (the filmmaker’s grandmother-in-law) dish about him and, well, that’s about it as far as insight goes.
In 1971, Beaton dismissed a flattering TV documentary about him as “inconclusive and superficial.”
The same, I’m afraid, could be said about “Love, Cecil.”