Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

Biographical documentaries are only as appealing as their subject—and then only if his or her life is discussed in an interesting or inventive way. This is especially true if the person is dead, and appears in the film only through archival footage and recreated scenes. Fashionistas seem to be very much in vogue at the moment, with a brace of films on various figures appearing in recent years. Pierre Thoretton’s documentary about Yves Saint Laurent, L’amour Fou, which was tied to the auction of the art, antiques, and ephemera he had collected throughout his life with his partner Pierre Bergé, opened the door to a largely unseen side of the designer’s life. (Though it was made after its subject had died, Bergé appeared front-and-centre, ably illuminating major events in his lover’s life—annotating the biography as it unravelled.) The September Issue attempted to probe goings-on at Vogue. Gaining access to Anna Wintour’s inner sanctum, it ultimately failed to ask the tough questions that would have made for an interesting behind-the-scenes examination. Bill Cunningham New York profiled the eccentric New York Times fashion photographer with panache; the incredibly moving interview segment in which he’s questioned about his romantic life was one of the best movie scenes of that year.

A new film about the former Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, made by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, starts promisingly—with an inventive, fun title sequence set to the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” The film is based for the most part on reconstructions of interviews with Diana by George Plimpton for her memoirs—luxuriously titled D.V.—in the early 1980s. She was a fabulous liar, if anything in the documentary is even half-right; why people believed most of the things she apparently said anyone’s guess. The film presents her as an iron-willed perfectionist: everything was a put-on, and everything had to be perfect. She doubtless would have been disappointed with the sloppiness of this documentary, which necessarily relies on television current-affairs footage to a significant degree (Vreeland died in 1989).

Interviews by Diane Sawyer (and some lesser journalists) sit alongside brief comments from her remaining family, and interviews with a host of celebrities—most interesting among them Anjelica Huston, Ali McGraw, and the director Joel Schumacher. Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, Manolo Blahnik, Anna Bulgari, and other fashion-world people pop in and out, but many of them come off as desperately sycophantic. The film pages through the magazines’ archives, but even this is done in a fairly dull manner. The art historian John Richardson contributes some of the film’s more sensible, grounded commentary in a segment on Vreeland’s whirlwind, revolutionary stint at the Costume Institute at MoMA; here, Harold Koda, the Institute’s current Curator-in-Charge, also makes some useful, interesting comments. This section isn’t enough to compensate for its formal shortcomings, most notably those damned memoirs interviews, which are recited by actors. The ersatz Plimpton sounds fine—and really has very little input, as the documentary sketches it, beyond occasionally goading his interviewee into speaking about her private life—but, no matter how hard she might try, Vreeland’s stand-in is unable to reproduce her marvellously Continental accent, or the outlandishly theatrical way she emphasised the end of a statement. Diana Vreeland’s was a larger-than-life persona, and she seems to have been about as egotistical and as big-headed as they come. This is an inappropriately small-time documentary which shines in fits and starts, never quite lighting up the screen the way Vreeland apparently lit up every room (and every life) she entered.