Love, Cecil: Documentary Portrait Of A Queer Icon
A new documentary explores the life of Cecil Beaton, including his affair with lesbian icon Greta Garbo.
Greta Garbo photographed by Beaton in 1946
While we may assume that queer identity is a contemporary phenomenon, the 20th century saw its fair share of queer trailblazers who shaped the century in art, design, and culture. One of the most successful and indelible queer creators was Cecil Beaton, the British photographer and designer whose life's work consisted of numerous portraits of English royalty, gods and goddesses of the silver screen, 30 books on beauty and aesthetics including his extensive diaries, countless articles and images for publications such as Vogue, and scenic and costume design for stage and screen. The self-taught artist and polymath was a trans-continental phenomenon for over 50 years and even if you don't know it, you will have seen his innovative portraiture capturing other queer icons such as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, and enjoyed the lush spectacles he created for classic Hollywood films such as My Fair Lady and Gigi.
A new documentary, Love, Cecil, recently screened at the Telluride Film Festival and at DOC NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the United States. It is directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland whose previous work includes documentaries on fashion legend Diana Vreeland (her grandmother-in-law) and art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim.
Love, Cecil is a reminder of the richness of the pre-digital age and the vital contribution made to culture by gays and lesbians at a time when their identities were not condoned or celebrated widely except through the arts. Even though Beaton described himself as "a terrible homosexualist," he was obsessed with women from a very early age, collecting photos of cross-dressing female theater stars, teaching himself photography by practicing on his sisters, and angling to photograph aristocratic women and even film legend Greta Garbo, for whom he harbored a life-long infatuation. When he died in 1980, three photos were found in his bedroom: two of his male loves, and one of Garbo.
Narrated by out actor Rupert Everett, Love, Cecil is a treat for lovers of the visual arts. It's also a testament to how a singular, marginal identity pursued to its limit can transport an LGBT sensibility into mass culture. In spite of—or perhaps because of his homosexuality and eccentricities—Beaton elevated photography, which was still a relatively new form beyond photojournalism and conventional portraiture, combining a taste for the avant-garde with his almost feminine appreciation of beauty.
The film beautifully organizes the rich artistic legacy of Beaton and turns it into a moving quest for self. Beaton’s talents are not only on display; we also get to relish his irrepressible wit and unapologetically acid tongue. For example, he wasn't a fan of Katharine Hepburn, who he photographed when she was playing Coco Chanel on Broadway, declaring that she was about as beautiful as "an old boot." While lesbians will disagree with that estimation, we can agree with his adoration of Greta Garbo. The film touches on their affair, which may or may not have been sexual. The actress Leslie Caron muses that there probably was some "hanky panky" between them, and perhaps we'll never know. But what we do know is that Beaton took a series of striking portraits of the reclusive screen icon under the pretense of producing a passport photo for her. He went on to publish the images in Vogue, much to her disapproval. Beaton's work also had its very serious side: he was a war photographer, chronicling Britain's involvement in the devastation of World War II and it is thought that his heartrending images, which were published in Life magazine, did a good deal to get America onboard as a military ally. His portraits of Queen Elizabeth II helped establish her as a rightful royal.
One of the strengths of Love, Cecil is that the film doesn't shy away from Beaton's flaws and disappointments. He was somewhat of a social climber, chronically unsuccessful in love, and so involved in his own processes he didn't seem to be aware of his infringement on the feelings of others. While he was possibly a narcissist he states unequivocally that he was never vain. In fact, he seems to have been driven by feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps if he were alive today he would be an Instagram influencer. He certainly has been influential on a number of gay male creators such as David Hockney and Isaac Mizrahi, who give onscreen commentary of Beaton's impact on their outlook. But it's more likely that Beaton was a unique product of his time when England was defined by class structures, when Europe and America were greatly influenced by each other, when trans-Atlantic crossings led to a cross-pollination of culture. Beaton's work mirrors and amplifies the 20th century's waves of innovation that led to an unfolding sequence of unique decades.
All throughout his life, Beaton expressed his queer sensibility outwardly, holding lavish parties, participating in salons, and taking experimental self-portraits in drag. He particularly celebrated the often androgynous allure of his subjects. His portraits of women tend to express their strength and complexity rather than diminish or objectify them, as later fashion photographers have done.
Love, Cecil is compelling viewing especially for anyone who is different and feels at odds with the mainstream—and wishes to have a lasting impact on it anyway.