Although self-definition is not the sole province of the queer sensibility, it remains a defining characteristic. In the years between the wars England still pretended its empire was solvent and persisted in holding the old class barriers. For Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton, to be the product of the middle class and homosexual were closing doors through which he had to bolt. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Love, Cecil doesn’t start from this premise, though: the legendary designer, fashion photographer, and diarist lived terrified of being thought a normal person. He needn’t have worried, though. This punctilious, mock-white beanpole of a man who for a moment thought he could marry Greta Garbo wouldn’t have been confused for normal.
One of the refreshing discoveries about Vreeland’s documentary is how rather than turning inward Beaton’s self-absorption abetted his curiosity. “I think beauty is static for only so long,” Beaton writes (Rupert Everett reads the excerpts, often exaggerating his idea of prissy correctness). Fascinated if not besotted with the artistic and leisure classes – “He loved the royalty thing,” the audience learns – Beaton turned his subjects into more famous approximations of himself. Gary Cooper, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, and, later, Mick Jagger he photographed as subtle gender and aesthetic inversions: he feminized the masculine, botched the feminine, and kept the essential ugliness of the beautiful.
Before he was consorting with the jet set, though, Beaton had to survive an adolescence in dreary Hampstead dominated by a timber merchant father who hadn’t a clue how he was supposed to deal with such a son. Queer audiences may nod in recognition when Love, Cecil documents Mr. Beaton’s stunned reaction on confronting a painted Cecil in his mum’s room. Beaton wanted out, but even at Cambridge few things held his interest. “I didn’t read a book until I was eighteen,” he admits. In theater he found the means by which to mold a new Cecil Beaton, specifically in designing scenery. He became in his words one of the Bright Young Things, about whom Evelyn Waugh wrote so pungently (Waugh bullied Beaton at the prep school they attended in their youth, I should note).
Assessing a film with a subject as marvelous as Beaton is difficult: the sweep of the life overcomes reservations. Dismissed rather too quickly is the matter of the anti-Semitic remarks that Beaton wrote for illustrations in Vogue, damning enough in a world where the ovens in Dachau had yet too cool. “You really need a magnifying glass to see them,” one wag mentions, as if that were that. Sometimes Vreeland, granddaughter-in-law of Diana Vreeland, isn’t sure what decade or epoch she’s setting up so that after a while the blur of photos, parties, and talking heads mesh into an amiable muddle.
Watch Love, Cecil then for its evocation of a vanished world where the gossip pages delineated the limits of public knowledge about their beloved of celebrities. It also works as an envoi to a mid twentieth century homosexual demimonde: of Auden and Isherwood, of Genet and Vidal. This was the high watermark of camp as literary device, attitude, and survival mechanism (some of the doc’s best moments explain how well and deliciously Beaton could hate). By insisting on his essential superficiality, Beaton also stressed how easily we can become the person we want to be.