This week I finally got to watch this documentary on Diana Vreeland, and it was worth the wait. Because the film was produced by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, I was afraid that it would be a bit of a sappy tribute. But no,no,no! It was carefully crafted from Vreeland’s 1984 memoir, DV, and from interviews she did at the time with Diane Sawyer, Dick Cavett and a smirking Jane Pauley.
In 1983 Vreeland asked George Plimpton to help her write the story of her life. They conducted a series of interviews which were edited to form DV. The film uses voice actors to recreate the interviews, along with the film interviews. While the book gives one a glimpse into the life and character of Vreeland, the film brings what is essentially the same material to life. Reading Vreeland’s words and seeing her speak them are two entirely different experiences.
The film also includes quite a few interviews with people who worked with her both at Vogue and at the Costume Institute. It was really interesting how few of them could talk about Vreeland without gesturing with their arms or without exaggerating their voices. They could not recall her without showing the grand manner in which she spoke.
Particularly interesting was the interview with Harold Koda, who at the time was an intern, and then an assistant curator at the Costume Institute. He addressed the criticism that the Vreeland shows were long on theatrics but short on scholarship. He explained that it was more important to Vreeland that the museum visitors feel the era being represented, rather than merely learning about it.
For an exhibition of 18th clothing Koda carefully researched the high wigs worn at court. After faithfully reproducing the hairstyle, Vreeland insisted that it was not high enough, so the wig was expanded. Upon seeing the mannequins they were to use for the show she exclaimed, “They have no éclat! Haut! Haut! Haut!”
Also interesting were the interviews with photographer David Bailey and model Penelope Tree, especially when they were asked to recount the same episode. Even though the interviews were conducted separately, it was like they were finishing one another’s sentences.
I was struck by who was not included – Grace Mirabella, Polly Mellon, and Si Newhouse, who worked with her at Vogue and Conde Nast. Perhaps they were asked to interview and declined, but I think that their inclusion, even in a very small way, would have added another dimension to the film.
The film is now available on Netflix, or on pay-per-view via Youtube. I got the dvd from Netflix, which includes a nice section of additional footage of the interviews. I would rarely suggest this, but I really think that if you have not read the book, you should see the film first. After watching The Eye Must Travel (twice!) I’m now reading the book with very fresh eyes.
Mrs. Vreeland in her living room. This is from the back cover of DV.