Matthew Lickona 11:44 a.m., May 24
Interview: Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland on Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
In an interview with writer Bob Colacello, fashion editor Diana Vreeland summed up what it means to be a visionary trendsetter: “You’re not supposed to give people what they want, you supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet.”
As a columnist at Harpers Bazaar and later editor-in-chief of Vogue, her career in publishing spanned over 30 years. She discovered Lauren Bacall and acted as style consultant to First lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Her flamboyant life forms the basis of the new documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel.
First-time director Lisa Immordino Vreeland got to know her subject through “her family's eyes. I’m a Vreeland through marriage and a Immordino at heart. I wanted to know Diana on my terms,” she told me during a phone conversation from London.
The film opens Friday exclusively at Landmark’s La Jolla Village.
Scott Marks: After writing her autobiography, Diana Vreeland joked: “I don’t give a damn what’s in it just so long as it sells.” How do you think that philosophy applied to her genius as a fashion editor?
Lisa Immordino Vreeland: She wanted to bring those pages to life and when she was made editor-in-chief at Vogue she finally got the ability to do that. (At Harper’s Bazaar she was just the fashion editor.) It was the ‘60’s and it was a magazine where she really had this kind of cool place to do what she wanted. She looked at Vogue as being much more than a fashion magazine. She recorded everything that was going on -- social, political, and cultural changes -- all these things she felt people would like and would interest and teach them. She gave it a sense of internationalism. It’s pretty incredible what they did.
Diana fabricated a lot of her personal backstory, most notably looking up and seeing Charles Lindbergh flying over Brewster when it wasn’t even on his route? One of the men you interview refers to it as “faction.” How did she react when people eventually called her on her on the inaccuracies?
People must have said, "Come on, Diana. That can’t be the real story," but I don’t have any first-hand examples of it. I was having a conversation with biographer Hugo Vickers today and we were talking about these fabrications. I think all these stories are true, but they’re exaggerated. I don’t think Diaghilev and Nijinsky danced in the family living room in Paris. Do I think she went riding with Buffalo Bill a lot? No. She definitely met him, and maybe he took her and maybe he didn’t.
It’s not as if she outright lied. It’s like adding a beautiful veneer by taking something and making it look better to help us understand. This whole sense of fantasy of Lindbergh flying over helped to make the war look a little better. I don’t look at it as being something so horrible. She had this vision when my husband and his brother were growing up in Morocco. She had in her mind that they would go to school on camels. It wasn’t true, but it seemed so much better to her that way. Why change it?
My mother used to say, “If you’re not good looking the least you can do is look good.” Diana’s mother regularly reinforced her ugly duckling status. How do you think the constant belittling contributed to her prowess as an arbiter of beauty?
It built up her character a lot. It told her at a young age -- and she wrote about it in her childhood diary -- if she was to stand out, she needed to be an original. She gave it to herself as a mental assignment. You have to have some pretty specific qualities already inside of you. I don’t think at that young an age you can actually manipulate your life that much. She just had to pull herself together and say I am going to do something with myself. And that’s exactly what she did. You have got to have some great stamina.
She had a lot of little things that came up along the way. It wasn’t just her mother. Even on her wedding day, this story about an affair her mother was having with a hunter who she always traveled with to Africa came out in the society pages. It was totally scandalous at that time for a story like that to come out on her wedding day. It was always constant little things, but she always forged ahead. Perhaps that’s why she had this kind of coldness and wouldn’t show her true feelings. That was her protection method.
She was lampooned in a couple of movies, most notably Kay Thompson’s haughty characterization in Funny Face. And I must track down a copy of William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? Did Diana have a sense of humor about herself? Did she take the ribbing in stride or do you think she was she insulted by it?
In regards to Funny Face, she she saw it and when it was over, she got up and said, “I never want to talk about this again!” Clearly she was not happy with that portrayal. I don’t think she always took herself too seriously. When she was interviewed by George Plympton she kept saying, “What do I know? There are 36 hours of a tape and she kept repeating, “Oh, yeah. What do I know?” That’s not somebody who thinks that seriously about herself. And I’m not saying that I like that about her. I like the fact that perhaps she wasn’t aware of what she was building.
The Eye Has to Travel follows Valentino: The Last Emperor and The September Issue, two recent fashion documentaries. What is it about these powerhouses that makes for such fascinating documentaries?
There was a whole merging of art, life, and culture. There is so much that is not personal anymore. It’s great to be able to follow Valentino around. It goes behind closed doors to give us glimpses of these people’s personalities. Although Vreeland is not alive, we were able to tell her story well and she feels alive. It’s all about getting more information. That’s what society seems to be about.
If they were to produce a narrative biopic based on the life of Diana Vreeland, who do you think should be cast to play her?
Everybody says Anjelica Huston. I think Anjelica would do a great job. She doesn’t exactly look like her, but I think that she gets her so well. I’m not quite there yet as to how this can be done. If there was to be a feature it would have to focus on a certain period. The Vogue years would be a natural.
The film ends with a lovely bit of animated whimsy as we watch Diana fly off with Lindy in the Spirit of St. Louis. At what point in the filmmaking process did it dawn on you that it was the only way to end this picture?
I wanted the film to end with Diana and Lindbergh. The movie premiered here last night in London and somebody said, “Ugh! How can you put animation there?” How was I going to find a picture of Diana Vreeland posing with Charles Lindbergh? There was no other way. We had some difficulty with the animation. At one point she was standing on the plane, and then she was going to walk across the wings. At the end I did the most limited thing I could: I put her in the plane and we had her turn her head.
You are missing one vital detail.
The ever-present cigarette!
(Laughing) I know. It was very hard to get that right. The scene needed to be more fully animated. Originally we had a horse in the picture, but it was so un-elegant; it looked like a cartoon Budweiser horse.
Diana Vreeland and a Clydesdale? Perish the thought! Your instincts were right. Instead of Photoshopped heads, you went with the magic of movies.
Right? They did such a beautiful job of moving from live-action to animation. It’s a very hard thing to do, but since I’m a first-time director, I was like “Who cares? What rules? Let’s just do it!”