By Glenn Kenny
Was Cecil Beaton, the photographer, artist, diarist and theatrical designer who chronicled, and was influenced by, several periods of artistic and social upheaval in the 20th century, the last dandy? The documentary, “Love, Cecil,” directed with energy and affection by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, doesn’t grapple with that question, and doesn’t have to; almost 40 years after Beaton’s 1980 death at age 76, no aesthete has come close to duplicating his output or his impact.
Narrated by Rupert Everett and enlivened by vivid swatches of Beaton’s own prose, “Love, Cecil,” after beginning with archival footage of a late-in-life television interview with the man, hews to a relatively straightforward linear chronology.
Born into an upper-middle-class but not quite upper-crust family in turn-of-the-century England, the young Beaton was introduced to high society by his friend Stephen Tennant. Beaton initially made his name photographing the “bright young things” of 1920s London, the more refined precursors of what we now call “club kids.”
A subsequent alliance with the publisher Condé Nast opened the door to fashion and celebrity photography. Beaton had to leave Vogue for a spell after inserting a piece of anti-Semitic graffito in one of his drawings. While he apologized profusely and sincerely, the movie never pins down what he was thinking when he did that.
Not that it matters much. The quirks of Beaton’s personality — his cultivation of enemies and frustrated romanticism, among them — are finally not as interesting as his work. In addition to spectacular still images of his portfolio, the film includes clips from the classic films “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady,” which Beaton art-directed. Ms. Vreeland (whose husband is the grandson of the fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, seen in archival footage here) was wise to display Beaton’s art so generously.
Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Stars Cecil Beaton, Hamish Bowles, Leslie Caron, Rupert Everett, David Hockney
Running Time 1h 38m