Love, Cecil: A doc about the style-setter who tarted up My Fair Lady

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-plus

A doc about a 20th Century style-setter of the sort often remembered lovingly in Vanity Fair magazine, Love, Cecil is a fascinating look back at the flamboyant fashion photographer/artistic director/gay icon Cecil Beaton, best known for creating the look of My Fair Lady and Gigi.

A son of the English merchant class who assumed the identity of an Edwardian dandy, Beaton was a career self-inventor, who managed to insinuate himself into the esthetic of every age in which he lived, from the ‘20s to the ‘70s.

 Cecil Beaton: A Bright Young Thing makes good

Cecil Beaton: A Bright Young Thing makes good

Beaton was blazingly imaginative with colour, and apparently catty and dramatic in his personal life. His mouth got him into trouble on more than one occasion – including a stint of joblessness after he slipped an anti-Semitic slur into an illustration in Vogue magazine in the ‘30s. He was eventually redeemed by the Queen Mother, who rescued him by making him a de facto official photographer of the British Royal Family.

So, we’re talking a complicated personality. It’s not often a narrator is the most valuable player in a documentary. But Rupert Everett, reading from Beaton’s diaries, injects an insouciance into the character (whose actual recorded archival material is limited). He pretty much creates the Cecil Beaton we meet here via his delivery.

The diaries are most affecting in the first act of Beaton’s life, when he “crashed” the upper-class group of brat-literati nicknamed the Bright Young Things (whose ranks included playwright Daphne du Maurier, composer William Walton and painter Rex Whistler). We see Beaton’s Flapper Age black-and-white photos of young people in swimsuits by the pool of various estates, and hear of his love affairs with several of the men (his one notable physical love affair with a woman was apparently Greta Garbo, who, like Beaton, was predominantly gay).

Those early relationships were doomed (and opportunistic to begin with), but rather than brood, he headed overseas to conquer New York (via Vogue) and Hollywood, where he would eventually win three Oscars for his flair for literally creating a scene.

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict) – who is the granddaughter-in-law of the late Vogue editor Diana Vreeland - has a deft touch for nuance of personality (Beaton made as many enemies as friends in his life). We see his determination to stay relevant burning brightly and desperately in the ‘60s and ‘70s in his picture-taking with Mick Jagger, Twiggy and artistic then-wunderkind David Hockney (who reminisces about Beaton fondly and archly).

Sic semper gloria, and all that. Still, you can’t come away from Love, Cecil without appreciating how much of Beaton's aesthetic outlived him.

Love, Cecil. Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Narrated by Rupert Everett. Opens March 16 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.