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Movie REview

‘Love, Cecil’ looks back at the fabulous career of Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton in New York in the 1930s.
Cecil Beaton in New York in the 1930s.(Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s/Zeitgeist Films)

Cecil Beaton (1904-80) was a bird of rare and luxuriant plumage. “I set out to become a rabid aesthete,” he once said, and in that aim he succeeded hands down. His set designs and costumes, most notably for “My Fair Lady,” won him two Oscars and four Tonys. His fashion and portrait photography made him a Vogue mainstay for decades, as well as a favorite of the British royal family.

The six volumes of diaries published during his lifetime both enhanced and enlivened Beaton’s reputation. Seeming to know everyone who was anyone, he made certain readers were aware he was in possession of the beans while only rarely spilling them. He was, in fact, very good at having things both ways. Discreetly gay, Beaton described himself as “a terrible, terrible homosexualist.” Yet he very indiscreetly publicized his affair with the woman some considered the most beautiful in the world, Greta Garbo.

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“He’s a total self-creation,” Truman Capote once remarked of Beaton, “and there are very few people in the world who are total self-creations.” Beaton, who was nothing if not self-aware, may have been saying the same thing when he admitted to being “tormented with ambition.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, he was a shameless social climber, snob, and dandy. All in all, Beaton could have been a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel — both belonged to the Bright Young Things, in ’20s London — except that he and Waugh detested each other.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who directed “Love, Cecil,” has a way with birds of rare and luxuriant plumage. Her two previous documentaries are “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” (2011) — she’s married to one of the fashion doyenne’s grandsons — and “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” (2015). Vreeland knows her way around the intersection of style and glamour, and that intersection is where Beaton parked his chariot.

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“Love, Cecil” offers a textbook case of the conflicting demands of form versus content. Formally, the documentary is very well done, quite enjoyably swanning around its subject. The problem is that subject. Like his handiwork, Beaton comes across as cold and calculating, superficial and overdone. Waugh called his novel about the Bright Young Things “Vile Bodies.” Not that Vreeland would agree — she clearly finds her subject attractive as well as fascinating — but “Vile Beaton” could have been the title of “Love, Cecil.”

Vreeland has assembled a fairly dazzling lineup of talking heads: David Hockney, the photographer David Bailey, the designers Isaac Mizrahi and Manolo Blahnik, the model Penelope Tree, the actress Leslie Caron. Beaton did the scenery and costumes for
“Gigi.” We even hear from Beaton’s butler, who speaks rather affectionately of him.

An unavoidable shortcoming of the documentary is the absence of Beaton’s peers. Somewhat making up for that is an even more dazzling lineup of period film clips and vintage photographs. All honor to Vreeland’s researchers — and editors, who have very skillfully woven together the material. Thanks to excerpts from the many television interviews Beaton gave over the years, he is very much a presence throughout the documentary. He’s star as well as subject. Also, Rupert Everett reads extensive excerpts from the diaries. There’s no narrator. There doesn’t need to be, with Beaton then so often able to speak for Beaton now.

**1/2

LOVE, CECIL

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Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. At Kendall Square. 99 minutes. Unrated.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.