LOVE, CECIL and Redefining the Undefinable Nature of Beauty

Closing out Pride month with a look at one of the world’s most brilliant artists

As Pride month continues to be more and more recognized each year, so too are the figures, both past and present, who have come to shape it. The acknowledgment and recognition extend beyond the traditional parades and processions to gestures both big and small. From rainbow pins being worn by members and allies throughout communities, to shows such as The View, where all month long the ladies take a break from ranting and raving about the state of things to pay tribute to a past individual who has furthered the gay movement in one way or another, celebrations of the LGBTQ community thrive. I couldn’t let Pride month come to a close without adding my own tribute to a gay figure of the past, the renowned photographer Cecil Beaton, a witty self-proclaimed “dandy” who, through his art, helped reshape the way others saw the world around them.

Narrated by Rupert Everett, Love, Cecil explores the life of Cecil Beaton, one of England’s most revolutionary photographers. Through commentary from the people who knew him as well as archival interviews of Cecil himself, this documentary pays loving and honest tribute to not just an underrated gay pioneer, but a truly groundbreaking and transformative artist who changed the way the world looked at itself.

Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Cecil Beaton was just how uncharacteristic and unpredictable his work was. This was a man with such an artistic eye and knack that he could transform anything, from a battlefield to a movie set, into the most extraordinary reality. Having started out from a young age by dressing up his two lookalike sisters and photographing them in his own homemade Dali-esque settings, Cecil made his way to Cambridge, where he failed nearly every class. But his photography quickly exceeded his reputation and took him over to New York where his unique instincts and illustrations helped breathe air into the aptly titled Life Magazine, launching a career which would last for decades. The way he was branded as revolutionary from the offset only furthered his artistic nature, which seemed to get stronger as the years went by. The most fascinating thing about Cecil is just how multifaceted his work was. An avid diarist, his published journals contained a Noel Coward-like wit along was a deep poignancy, covering every topic from his dislike of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to his own family life. Meanwhile his Oscar-winning work as a set and costume designer on classic films such as Gigi and My Fair Lady remain iconic, and though uniquely their own creations, bear the mark of Cecil Beaton. Whether they were photographs, movie sets, or diary entries, each one symbolized Cecil’s belief in the possibility of a kind of beauty no one really believed was possible.

If there was one aspect about Cecil’s life in relation to his work which proves incredibly touching, it was his love of country. Having come into prominence during times of great strife in Britain following wars, recession, and rebuilding, Cecil’s chronicle of his country was nothing short of a great public service. After bogus charges of anti-semitism drummed him out of Life Magazine and America, Cecil found himself on the front lines, photographing British soldiers in the midst of WWII. The photographer traveled every which way, rarely stopping as he took images of his servicemen, capturing the essence of their experience in a way no one had ever seen before. Back home, his photographs of the Queen mother and later Elizabeth’s coronation helped instill a pride in England’s history among its people which had been sorely lost in the midst of the country’s seemingly unending turmoil. Although such work was a far cry from the magical, dreamlike work with which he’d made his name, Cecil recognized the importance of such efforts in terms of both history and documentation. Most importantly though, it was his goal of helping the world see an alternate version itself, one seeped in both honesty and imagination, which furthered some of the most invaluable work of his career.

It’s hard not to feel a tinge of sadness when the focus of Love, Cecil looks at the man’s own personal life. He recognized his homosexual nature early on and accepted that because of this, he would never enjoy the same “best friend” relationship with his father that his younger brother did. Yet at the same time, he mourned not for his brother, but for his father when the former was killed in the war. There’s a sense of Cecil always trying to fit into a mold at different periods of his life, which surely must have served as a catalyst of sorts for his transformative work. There’s his time as one of the “bright young things” of the ‘20s and his tumultuous romantic relationships (including a love affair with Greta Garbo) which further shows a man never fully satisfied with one identity. His efforts to express himself (and find himself) through his art, while trying to make full sense of his sexuality, were certainly a first for the times and could well be considered pioneering. For all of the mesmerizing work Cecil Beaton created in his lifetime, the sole element which never left him was a longing for a different reality than the one he found himself in; one which was as beautiful as he thought the world should be.

Love, Cecil is now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

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