When discussing tastemakers of the 20th century, few names conjure “style” with the zest of Diana Vreeland, and docu “The Eye Has to Travel” gets the zing just right. As editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue in the glory years of couture, Vreeland had an enormous impact on the way people looked at clothes and the aura they conveyed, and while some poked fun at her image, it was always done with respect. The same can be said for helmers Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, and Frederic Tcheng, whose docu will thrive at fests, on smallscreens and in ancillary.
Though the pic is a tie-in to Immordino Vreeland’s forthcoming book on her grandmother-in-law (whom she never knew) and an exhibition opening in Venice in early spring, this isn’t a mere promo piece, though it is a celebration.
Born Diana Dalziel in Paris in 1903 to expat socialite parents, she grew up in a household where the Belle Epoque’s leading luminaries made frequent social calls. From there to New York, and the delirious freedom of the 1920s when hemlines rose, necklines descended and the freedom embodied by Josephine Baker swept up the young Diana.
Marriage to Reed Vreeland in the 1920s (it lasted 46 years) led to a London sojourn and then back to New York. In 1937 the stylish D.V. (as she self-styled her autobiography) was recruited by Carmel Snow, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and Vreeland remained with the trend-setting magazine for 25 years until she decamped to Vogue. Both magazines offered far more than fashion; they presented a lifestyle of glamour with a pride in chic eccentricity. “You learn from exaggeration,” claimed Vreeland, and she lived up to her precept.
Vreeland’s flair and uncanny ability to gauge the moment earned her the admiration (and fear) of all around her. Ali McGraw, an assistant fresh out of Wellesley, talks of her imperious manner, yet like everyone else, she does so with a strong element of admiration. The helmers bring together a who’s-who of designers (Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik), models (Veruschka, Polly Tree, China Machado) and photographers (David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman) who testify to Vreeland’s exactitude and verve. She was the woman who discovered Lauren Bacall, advised Jackie Kennedy, celebrated Twiggy.
When Vogue let her go, Vreeland was hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she revolutionized the Costume Institute and influenced generations of visitors who began looking at clothes and their display as more than merely cunningly stitched fabric but representatives of an era’s spirit and wellsprings of creativity. She may not have been the mother most children want (as testified by her two sons), but the relish with which she championed creativity, from Yves Saint Laurent to Mick Jagger, made her the oracle of style.
Along with talking heads, the helmers re-create recordings made during George Plimpton’s interviews of Vreeland; though Annette Miller’s voice isn’t as deep, she captures the cadences and, best of all, the emphases Vreeland gave to such words as “pizzazz” and “divine,” always with extra exclamation marks. Her gnomic memos deserve a book in themselves.
Pacing moves at a great clip but doesn’t overwhelm the subject; nothing really could. Tech credits, Vreeland would be happy to know, are flawless.