“Love, Cecil”: Portrait of the Artist as a Terrible Homosexualist

The film by Lisa Immordino Verrland is an overly-adoring portrait of the legendary photographer and designer.

Currently in limited theatrical release, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s new biographical documentary, Love, Cecil is a lush, extremely well-researched portrait showcasing the abundant creative output of Cecil Beaton and providing an at times too-adoring overview of his life and loves (including substantial treatment of his relationships with men).

Beaton’s aesthetic achievements as a photographer, production designer, and illustrator are so prolific and far-reaching and his style so enduring that his name and his fey persona seem almost inseparable from the 1920s and ’30s in particular. His career spanned the 1910s through the 1970s and he photographed so many glamorous personalities there are truly too many names to list—the highlights include: Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Marlon Brando, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn. Oh, and, Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family (yes, fans of The Crown will recall that Cecil features in several episodes).

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Queen Elizabeth II with her maids of honor in a portrait by Cecil Beaton, taken at Buckingham palace in 1953

It seems verging on sacrilegious to pan this paean to the high priestess of gay sensibility. And yet, one wishes the film (like Cecil himself) were just a bit less ponderous. That said, there is much to enjoy here.

Immordino Vreeland (granddaughter-in-law of legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland) has done an impressive job researching her subject and securing access to an abundance of incredible archival materials. The sheer volume of photos of Beaton through the ages is staggering and we hear from Cecil himself in several different archival interviews.

Love, Cecil transports us through the years via readings from Beaton’s famous diaries, with Rupert Everett doing a lovely job as narrator regaling us with such Beatonesque bon mots as: “Once you’ve started for the end of the rainbow you can’t very well turn back.” And: “Truth begins with oneself.” And, best of all: “I’m really a terrible, terrible homosexualist. And try so hard not to be.”

The contemporary interviewees who reflect on Beaton’s influence, another sequence of names too long to list, includes such luminaries from the fashion and art worlds as Isaac Mizrahi, David Hockney, Beaton biographer Hugo Vickers, Vogue editor Hamish Bowles, and designer Nicky Haslam. Again, much of this material is fabulous—it would be even more fabulous if the film were about twenty-minutes shorter.

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Designer Cecil Beaton talks with Audrey Hepburn on set of the film My Fair Lady, 1964

Attending Cambridge in the early 1920s Beaton boldly claimed to have never attended any classes but instead spent his time organizing performances, designing scenery and acting (including some spectacular drag appearances—the film showcases numerous self-portraits in drag). Love, Cecil takes us through Beaton’s photographic documentation in the United Kingdom of the Bright Young Things of the ’20s, and then through his time in America in the 1930s—including his stunning New York City street photography, his time in what he called the “celluloid oasis” of Hollywood, and his ascent as a fashion photographer for Vogue. That rise is followed by his momentary fall from grace after an anti-Semitic reference in one of his illustrations led to his being fired by Conde Nast.

We follow him through his being enlisted in 1939 to photograph the Queen, through his remarkable aestheticized images of wartime Britain—featuring lots of hunky soldiers and airmen. On up into the 1950s and ’60s and his achievements in production design for the stage and screen including his two Oscars for costume design for Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964).

Perhaps the film’s most fascinating story is about Beaton’s obsession with Greta Garbo, who he befriended and photographed extensively and was rumored to have even slept with. Referencing their respective queerness, one interviewee quips: “He thought he could turn Garbo; she thought she could turn him.” In his diary, Beaton even describes proposing to her.

A terrible homosexualist, indeed.

Manchester Daily Express/SSPL/Getty Images
Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo

As is to be expected of these kinds of hagiographic projects we conclude with the speculations of his friends and colleagues expressing such eulogizing platitudes as: “His life was about living for beauty…”

Pardon my cranky cynicism; maybe I’m just channeling Cecil, actually.

In one of the film’s best sequences Beaton indulges in his queeny dishing and trashing of some of his least favorite people. The high point being this shocking take-down of one of gaydom’s most revered icons:

“I’ve always despised the Burtons for their vulgarity, commonness ,and crass bad taste. Richard Burton is as butch and coarse as only a Welshman can be. Elizabeth Taylor is everything I dislike, combining the worst of American and English taste.”

In one of the most revealing lines of the film, the one and only Truman Capote offers up his own queeny dishing of Beaton, as someone who: “gathers enemies like other people gather roses.”

On the one hand, how can you resist a feature-length portrait of one of the pre-eminent homosexuals of the 20th century?

Call me cynical, or even sacrilegious, but one comes away with the sense that Love, Cecil feels like a ninety-minute commercial for the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s (credited prominently in the film’s credits and inarguably the greatest beneficiary of the resurgence of interest in Beaton that the film has clearly prompted since premiering at last year’s Telluride Film Festival). As the film itself explains, Beaton was an unapologetic self-promoter in life; it seems a fitting and poetic tribute that he should carry on as such from beyond the grave.

Love, Cecil is now playing in select cities. Click here for playdates.

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF