“The Queen wonders if you’ll photograph her tomorrow afternoon?”
Cecil Beaton, after being fired from American Vogue in 1938, on charges of anti-Semitism, was living in England when his phone rang. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who would go on to be his favorite royal subject, wanted to be photographed by him. For Beaton, the artist, photographer, costume and set designer, and diarist, this was the resurrection. Years later, he would sit in Westminster Abbey, high up near the organ pipes, taking photos of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation with his top hat stuffed with sandwiches.
Beaton, the eponymous protagonist of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Love, Cecil was guided by the strength of his visual acuity. He sought to find a certain kind of beauty in the things that he saw and chose to express this beauty in as many ways as possible — in his drawings for Vogue, photographs, collages, diaries, Broadway sets and costumes. His obsession with beauty, as the documentary reveals, stemmed from theatre: the suspension of disbelief and the evocative power of beautiful sets, costumes and make-up overpowered him during his days at Cambridge University. In what is retrospectively one of the earliest instances of queering the campus, Beaton would attend classes in drag — his face adorned with feathers and done up with heavy make-up, wearing clothes that no one had ever seen before — least of all, on a man.
His relentless search for beauty essentially emerges from a constant feeling of not belonging and dissatisfaction that can perhaps be traced back to his family. His father was a timber merchant and the Beaton children, Cecil and his three siblings, grew up in comfortable abundance: attending the esteemed Harrow School, and later Cambridge. But he was never satisfied. This was not the life he wanted — this life of studying, rote learning, growing up to run a business. Beaton wanted to be free, open, living a life of careless luxury. When he finally left Cambridge without finishing his degree, he became a part of Bright Young Things, group of young, carefree, rich youngsters who dressed up, posed for pictures, threw parties, drank copiously and were everything Cecil Beaton wanted to be. The pictures that he took of Stephen Tennant and his other bohemian friends not only mark the beginnings of his formal photography career, but also exist as invaluable documents of this sub-culture of young men and women who in 1920s London lived a life of grandeur and decadence typical of the 1890s — the decade that shocked the rigid Victorian morality with its hubristic aestheticism, sensuality, and transgressive openness to sexual and political experimentation. For Beaton, who never completely belonged to his own time and society, this turning back of time was euphoric.
There’s no denying that Beaton brought to fashion photography a certain intellectual gravitas that was hitherto unseen. Inspired by a range of art movements — from German Expressionism to French Romanticism, he incorporated shadows and sets to carefully curate mise-en-scènes that throbbed with sensuality, drama, and romance. The flair and meticulousness with which he captured people is the same flair with which he wrote out his diaries, and the same meticulousness with which he did up his house in Ashcombe, and with which he hosted intellectual and cultural giants. Salvador Dali holds a fencing mask and stares to his right; Mona von Bismarck peeps through a torn screen of paper; Charles Henry Ford places his chin on Pavel Tchelitchew’s neck; Lady Diana Cooper wears an ornate headdress and wraps a velvet shawl around herself. In Beaton’s photographs, it’s never just the person who is the subject of the photograph but always the persona and the idea of the thousand different characters they might be. Beauty, for Beaton, is a dynamic ever-changing entity, a force so intent on expressing itself that it defies the established norms of expression and anonymity.
Vreeland makes a concerted effort to probe beyond the Cecil Beaton the world knows — the Oscar-winning unabashedly dapper, flamboyant, self-confessed “dandy” Cecil Beaton who through his costumes for Gigi, My Fair Lady, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, lent to Hollywood some of that charismatic flamboyance and chicness. She uncovers the deeply hurt Beaton who could never really forgive himself for the anti-Semitic Vogue illustration, the tiny but legible word “Kike” peeking out of a drawing. Almost as a way of redeeming himself, he joined the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War and travelled across Burma, China, and Egypt — photographing the deadly aftermath but at the same time, celebrating the beauty that survives war and the culture of aesthetics that outlives destruction. During the Blitz he photographed three-year-old Eileen Dunne, her head bandaged, arms clutching a teddy and her eyes set in a piercing gaze — the photograph that would finally appear on the cover of Life and convince the Americans to aid Britain in the war. This is a Beaton who gets seldom talked about: the Beaton who documented a devastating war with as much dedication and skill as he documented the crème de la crème of Hollywood and the British royalty.
The documentary also highlights the frankness with which Beaton lived his life. It is peppered with anecdotes about people he hated. He famously said that Elizabeth Taylor combined the worst of American and English tastes, and that Katharine Hepburn was as graceless as a “dried out boot.” It also underscores the inherent duality of his life — the unabashed, frank side and the contradictory, private, secretive side. As Truman Capote notes in the film, “He was both very vain and very modest at the same time.” For him almost everything was about style and self-fashioning — so much so that he was often labelled a vain narcissist. “I am not vain,” he said, “I’m at worst, pretty.”
“I’m a terrible homosexualist,” Beaton wrote in his diary. Underlining all of his creative pursuits, is the deep discomfort of never being able to live freely as a homosexual, of living a life of endless discretion. The documentary uncovers the deep love he felt for British art collector Peter Watson and then later, the American fencer Kinmont Hoitsma (whom he calls him “ceaselessly beautiful”)— both affairs left him heartbroken and sad. The film also explores his deep relationship with Greta Garbo, who was the most beautiful woman in his eyes. In this segment, the camera fleets from one portrait to another — in one she gazes obliquely sitting among flowers; in another she lays down wearing a white turtle neck as her hair frames her face; and in another, she gazes out a window.
When Beaton passed away in 1980, in the Reddish House in the village of Broad Chalke in Wiltshire, England — an 18th-century manor he bought and renovated — his room only had three portraits that he had taken: of Watson, Hoitsma, and Garbo. The self-created man who saw the life he wanted to live and built it for himself, who bought much beauty into the world, passed away in solitude, forever in pursuit of unattainable beauty, never in surrender.
Love, Cecil opened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Theater on June 29.