New to DVD, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is a
fascinating, sometimes exuberant, documentary about the woman who
helped popularize everything from blue jeans and bikinis to Barbra
Filmmakers Lisa Immordino Vreeland (the wife of Diana Vreeland’s grandson), Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frédéric Tcheng make fine use of archival footage, still photographs, movie clips and, best of all, audio recordings from 1982 in which George Plimpton interviewed her for the purpose of editing her memoirs.
In full disclosure, I’ll admit I’m not the ideal audience for a movie about a fashion icon. What I know about fashion could fit inside a ratted-out sneaker. But it bespeaks the solid craftsmanship of Diana Vreeland that it details her achievements and legacy while still conveying her inimitable voice and manner.
There is an impressive range of interviewees, of course — Calvin Klein, Diane von Fürstenberg, Lauren Hutton and so on — but the chief attribute is that there’s so much of Vreeland herself, her imperious voice and delivery a heady mix of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis.
The documentary’s title refers to how an eye examines a magazine page, but the real travels here concern the journeys of Vreeland’s restive mind. She plundered her imagination and spanned the globe, figuratively and literally, to feed fantasies that people didn’t yet know they harbored. At Harper’s and Vogue, she conjured up fashion spreads that embraced images as exotic as they were drenched in romanticism. “Life is artifice,” she pronounced.
There is an engaging strain of Forrest Gump-ism to the proceedings. Vreeland — who bounced around from Paris to New York to London — loved to tell stories of her brushes with celebrities and historical figures, a mix of fact and fiction that she labeled “faction” when pressed about their veracity. As a result, the documentary encompasses a host of 20th-century touchstones, from her selling lingerie to Wallis Simpson during her affair with Edward VIII (“My little lingerie shop had brought down the throne!”) to seeing Adolf Hitler in Berlin (“That mustache! It was just wrong!”)
was less vociferous when it came to her nonprofessional life. She told
Plimpton that her mother ridiculed her as an “ugly little monster,” and
she notes having a pronounced stutter as a child, but Vreeland avoids
further self-revelation. She raised two boys and lost a husband to
cancer, but bristles at discussing them.
“Why all this family talk?” Vreeland asks Plimpton. “Shouldn’t we get to the more exciting stuff?”
The filmmakers obviously admire Vreeland for her vision — how could they not? — but their work is not hagiography. As Diana Vreeland makes clear, she felt most inspired outside of the family. —Phil Bacharach