‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’ is Fabulous, Dahling

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CHICAGO – Biography documentaries often are the most creative of that film genre. Over the past few years some notable general releases have included “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (2002) and the George Harrison treatment by Martin Scorsese. Add “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” to that list – bio docs that present a life in style and substance.

Diana Vreeland was a fashion influencer in the hotbed of New York City for over 30 years. She worked as a columnist and designer for Harper’s Bazaar Magazine in the mid 20th century, but came into her own in 1962 as the editor-in-chief for Vogue Magazine, and during nine tumultuous years she led the charge during one of the greatest fashion movements of the last 50 years. This documentary, subtitled “The Eye Has to Travel” attempts to get behind the icon, to a sense of her personhood. Using archival footage, illustrative film clips and a fun re-creation of an interview Diana conducted with the legendary writer George Plimpton, this is an essential film for fashion freaks, and it’s even interesting for everyone else.

Diana Dalziel was born in Paris in 1903, the daughter or privilege, and lived there until her early teenage years. At the outbreak of World War I, her family emigrated to New York City, where they joined high society. Diana at first practiced the art of ballet, actually dancing at Carnegie Hall. The Roaring Twenties started her on a party phase, which settled down after she married banker Thomas Vreeland.

Diana Vreeland, Marisa Berenson
Diana Vreeland and Marisa Berenson in an Archival Photo from ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’
Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

She was discovered for the fashion world by Harper Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, and wrote a famous New York fashion column called “Why Don’t You…” (“Why don’t you decorate a nursery with maps of the world…” etc.). After being in Snow’s shadow for over 25 years, she became editor-in-chief at Vogue during the 1960s “youthquake” (her term) and helped evolve the fashion sense of the era. For her last act, she was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, drawing crowds with her shows of fashion art through the ages.

Vreeland led such a colorful existence – a childhood in Paris, a flapper during the 1920s and as one of the most influential fashion editors in history – that her life cycle is nothing but interesting. The centerpiece narration is the give-and-take between her and George Plimpton as he helped write her autobiography in the early 1980s. Theater actors Annette Miller and Jonathan Epstein imitate the famous voices from those sessions, and the warm familiarity of Plimpton coupled with the smoky voice of Vreeland is effectively appropriate in telling her story.

The style of forty years of fashion is represented as well, as the photographs and ornate magazine illustrations exhibit Vreeland’s heyday. The world of fashion is insular, cut off from reality in a way, as ornate and elaborate clothing are displayed in the magazines not for the utilitarian use of actually wearing the items, but being the image. Working on that type of fantasy day-after-day, year by year, affected Ms. V’s worldview substantially, as all her life was but a dream. Fashion magazines still have influence, but it will never be like Vreeland’s era again.

There are plenty of fascinating interviews, including with former models Anjelica Huston, Marisa Berenson and Lauren Hutton. Vreeland was a proponent of different faces, and even if a model had a facial flaw it was actually accentuated in the Swingin’ Sixties. Her two sons also had a bone to pick with her, as it was obvious that her career came first, even as they seem to admire her from afar. Fashion photographers like Richard Avedon and editorial assistants like the actress Ali McGraw in her early career expose some of the devil-wears-Prada elements of her tenure as Vogue editor, the position that she was eventually fired from because she couldn’t be bothered with a spreadsheet.

Diana Vreeland
1950s Fashion Magazine Spreads as Shown in ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’
Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

The last act of her life involved the curating of fashion art at the Metropolitan Museum, and her shows becoming happenings that redefined what a serious art museum could present and display. She was eventually let go of that responsibility as well, so there is an indication that it was her way or the highway, and she wasn’t afraid to merge both on or off the road.

Fashion, for better or worse, affects everybody. How we present ourselves to the rest of the world can make or break any situation. The idea of this film is that Diana Vreeland knew that this presentation mattered, and when it really worked it could even foretell a revolution.

“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” continues a limited release in Chicago on September 28th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring interviews with Anjelica Huston, Richard Avedon, Lauren Hutton, Marisa Berenson and Ali McGraw. Written and co-directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Ben-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frédéric Tcheng. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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