Many a still-alert nonagenarian would doubtless appreciate an offspring orchestrating a review of their life to date, although you might have to be Anderson Cooper for the result to take the form of an HBO-produced documentary feature. The CNN journalist’s mom, of course, is famous in her own right. Liz Garbus’ “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper” is an entertaining overview of the famed heiress’ colorful history to date, drawing on an extensive trove of archival materials and the subject’s own testimony. Casting her as a brave survivor of numerous travails, this glossy, somewhat superfluous recap of an already much-examined life leaves one question unasked: Would there be any pressing reason to care about their personal hardships if these protagonists weren’t longtime celebrities? The Sundance-preemed pic bows on U.S. cable April 9.
As his mother passes 90 years, Cooper, her youngest son, decides to go through voluminous stores of long-neglected correspondence and mementoes, as well as have extensive on-camera sit-down sessions. They cover a saga familiar in outline to most Americans over a certain age: that of the original “poor little rich girl,” a transportation empire’s sole heir subjected to a scandalous high-profile custody battle between her somewhat irresponsible young socialite mother and older relatives when she was a child in the mid-1930s. (This had the unfortunate effect of separating her from the beloved nanny who’d done the real “parenting” from birth.)
Desire to escape the yoke of family control led to a short-lived first marriage; a longer second one to legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, four decades her senior; a third to director Sidney Lumet; and finally to actor/scenarist Wyatt Cooper, an apparently happy union that ended when he succumbed to heart disease at age 50. Anderson Cooper was the youngest of their two sons; she had two more previously with Stokowski. Between these nuptial commitments, her lovers included Ray Milland and Frank Sinatra. Still immaculately turned out, she admits having always “loved being in love.”
The premature deaths of her father (when she was an infant), last husband and one son are viewed in terms of their personal impact on Vanderbilt (and that latter event on Anderson Cooper), triggering a certain lifelong, restless discontent. Seeking the fulfillment of self-expression and media attention, she dabbled in acting, modeling, design, writing and more, most famously branding a still-extant popular line of designer blue jeans.
While Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?,” “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” “The Farm: Angola USA”) is a highly accomplished documentarian whose intelligence can be felt shaping this sleek package throughout, it nonetheless feels like something of a vanity project, with Anderson Cooper firmly in control. Undoubtedly he gets more out of his mother than a more disinterested interviewer might. But at the same time, both are such practiced camera personalities that one can never be sure just where the line between heartfelt self-examination and discreet public performance lies. (Some unpleasant but significant topics are skipped or barely mentioned, such as Vanderbilt’s estrangement from an older child by Stokowski.)
Certainly the notion of a son preserving Mom’s keepsakes and reminiscences just to make sure “nothing is left unsaid” between them seems a tad disingenuous when that interchange involves engaging an Oscar-nominated filmmaker to make a movie for national broadcast. Do their private pains require the validation of public exposure? (Or rather, more public exposure; Vanderbilt has already published five memoirs.) Though he’s half-apologetic about raising the idea, there are a few wince-inducing moments when Anderson Cooper suggests his familial experiences of loss prepared him for covering the horrors of overseas war zones. Similarly, the air of gravity lent this admittedly affectionate, personal project doesn’t entirely succeed in justifying what often comes off like an extended high-end version of the archetypal Barbara Walters interview in which a confessing celebrity is made to cry on camera, on cue.
Having been photographed (often as a de facto fashion model) and filmed virtually since birth, Vanderbilt certainly provides a diverse, glamorous and star-studded visual biography, her devotion to changing fashion reflected in no end of striking personal looks. Perhaps the pic’s most unfamiliar aspect, and one of its most interesting, is seeing how her artwork in various media (mostly painting) has also undergone constant chameleonic shifts over the decades, revealing skill and imagination if not necessarily first-rank talent. The slick documentary’s collage of elements is further diversified by brief animation of those canvases. All tech/design contributions are smoothly polished.