You walk away from “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” having learned a great deal about the woman who was the arbiter of fashion for 50 years. Then you realize you learned almost nothing about her life.
It remains locked away. Just as she would have wanted.
It quickly becomes clear in this film by Lisa Immordino Vreeland — she’s married to the icon’s grandson — that “Diana Vreeland” invented herself. She created a persona, then worked every day of her life to maintain it.
Whatever we think of as a life — marriage, kids, friends — took place off-stage for Vreeland. In this collection of old interviews with her, she determinedly steers away from nearly all questions about that life.
All she’ll say of her husband of 40-odd years is that she remained “shy” around him all that time. One of her grown sons admits on camera that growing up he wished he had a different mother.
As for that self-creation “Diana Vreeland” though, Immordino has made an absolutely splendid film. (For clarity’s sake, I will call the filmmaker Immordino and her subject Vreeland.)
Immordino, who never met the woman, has assembled many vintage interviews of Vreeland including one with Dick Cavett on his TV show and audio recordings of her chats with George Plimpton as he helped prepare her memoirs.
Virtually uneducated other than in the school of life — and she was born into a fabulous one — Vreeland peppers these interviews with many rules of life and “factions” — her own sly admission of a tendency to blend fact with fiction.
Recalling that Wallis Simpson once visited her lingerie shop in London during her courtship by the King of England, Vreeland leaps to the conclusion that “my lingerie shop had brought down the throne!”
“Make an asset of your faults,” she says, and that’s what she did by focusing on a model’s gap in her teeth (Lauren Hutton), long neck (Marisa Berenson) or elongated nose (Barbra Streisand).
“Don’t give them what they want. Give them what they don’t know they want — yet.” I like that one.
“I will die young. I may be 70 or 80 or 90 but I will be very young.” She certainly stuck by that principle.
Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) jokes that she “arranged” to be born in Paris. (And to wealthy parents to boot.) She spoke French, loved the Ballets Russes and watched in awe as her parents entertained the likes of Diaghilev and Nijinsky.
She seemed to have a knack of being at the epicenter of western culture at all the right moments. Born in France to catch the end of the Belle Époque and haute couture, she returned to America with her parents as World War I broke out. So she was in position to get the most out of the Roaring Twenties in New York.
She rode horses with Buffalo Bill in Wyoming, then met and married a charming man of wealth, Reed Vreeland, who whisked her off to London and romantic jaunts in a Bugatti coupé throughout Europe.
She was in London for the Swinging Sixties, then back in New York for what she called the “youth-quake” of the counter-culture. Along the way she had found her true calling.
Carmel Snow, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, caught a prescient glimpse of Vreeland’s high-fashion persona at a Manhattan party in 1936. She brought her aboard that magazine at first to pen the “Why Don’t You?” column, which dared female readers to live a life of imaginative fashion and lifestyle choices.
Vreeland spent 25 years as the magazine’s fashion editor, then resigned to take over as Vogue’s editor-in-chief. She introduced models with personality, such as Twiggy and film stars like Sophia Loren, advised Jackie Kennedy (later Onassis) and demonstrated an unfailing eye for the new and exciting.
Even getting fired in 1971 didn’t stop her. A year later, she took over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and transformed it into a hot ticket. That she distorted or misrepresented aspects of costuming through the ages only bothered professional staffers, not the public.
So this was a life lived in the full spotlight, where gradually she became as famous if not more so than the designers, fashions and models who appeared within the pages of Vogue.
Through interviews with those who can bear witness such as Richard Avedon and the old Vreeland interviews, Immordino paints a vivid portrait of a woman in full flight, seldom at rest and ever anxious for the next new thing.
That she misses any interior life may not be the filmmaker’s fault. What if there weren’t any? The filmmaker never says that. After all, she is married to the woman’s grandson. But you can take away any ideas or impressions you like.
You certainly come away full of admiration for “Diana Vreeland.” She is a marvelous creation and totally original.
Opens: September 21, 2012 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Production companies: Gloss Studio presents a Mago Media production
Director/producer: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Co-director/editor: Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Frederic Tcheng
Executive producer: Jonathan Gray
Director of photography: Cristobal Zanartu
Music supervisor: Susan Jacobs
PG-13 rating, 86 minutes