Focus is right in ‘Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel’

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All you want in a movie about the legendary fashion-magazine editor Diana Vreeland — it’s “Dee-AHN-ah,” by the way — is Vreeland herself. You want her coming at you and shooting through you until her wit, her kookiness, her ideas about fashion and style and what they have to do with everyday life are popping out of your pores. Going to the movies for that effect isn’t essential. Several books accomplish this, the best being “D.V.,” which is Vreeland, courtesy of George Plimpton, in her own very entertaining, very wise, very digressive words. There is a new movie, though — “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” a documentary profile that gets the job done, too. It’s by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, a fashion insider who married Diana’s grandson Alexander but never met Vreeland. The movie has a lot going for it.

In less than 90 minutes, it walks us through sketches of Vreeland’s private life and the formulation and decades-long execution of her philosophy in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. The energy here is a selling point. The prefatory opening-title design involves a wall of magazine covers and swings from one cover to the next, revealing someone like Lauren Hutton or Anjelica Huston, people who knew Vreeland and can speak about her as a tastemaker and a woman.

What immediately follows is one of those “uh-oh” decisions that can ruin a decent documentary. Immordino has hired actors to read Vreeland’s recorded conversations with Plimpton. The man doing Plimpton sounds overeager, and the woman doing Vreeland gets that cured, draggy rasp but emphasizes a Britishness that was never truly there. The actor is simultaneously going for Eartha Kitt and Judi Dench. Vreeland was born in Paris, and lived in London and New York, but, to me, the regal char in her voice was just like Weezie Jefferson’s.

Anyway, you don’t know why the movie is bothering since it also uses some great television-interview footage of Vreeland — of her talking to Dick Cavett and Jane Pauley and Diane Sawyer. But the reenactments become important, smartly inserted connective material. I wound up liking them. They’re as lively as the rest of the movie, as lively as Vreeland. What’s confirmed here is that Vreeland, who died in 1989, was one-of-a-kind, a woman who understood that she had a dubious sort of beauty and used it to her advantage. She came of age in the 1920s — the height of Surrealism — and spent a lot of time partying in Harlem, where she found herself drawn to the glamorous pizazz, to the showmanship, and to Josephine Baker, who, for Vreeland, was the embodiment of charisma.

Vreeland wanted to bring all of that to her work in the New York fashion-magazine world, which, until her revolution of it, was staid and insular. Vreeland detonated the staidness but could do only so much about the insularity. Fashion scares a lot people; and a lot of people who don’t fear it can’t afford it. But that was part of her point. Vreeland applied fantasy. She wasn’t pushing clothes, not really. She championed attitude and style and individuality — those were free.

The movie describes what hell she could be to work for. The actress Ali MacGraw tells stories about her time as an assistant that sound very “Devil Wears Prada.” (MacGraw still seems annoyed.) The ingenious slave-driving fashion-magazine editor was a Vreeland invention. But the difference between Vreeland and her progeny, namely Anna Wintour (if the gossip and romans-a-clef are to be believed), is that Vreeland was a spirited thinker. She committed her glee, disappointments, discoveries, and expectations to paper and, several times a day, distributed them as memos. Someone in the film rightly notes that she was actually doing a form of blogging. Wintour is a chillier, less colorful star, a taciturn Bergman to Vreeland’s quotable Fellini, Wednesday Addams to Vreeland’s wise Uncle Fester. To that end, Vreeland’s upside-down approach to life was what Little Edie Beale, the eccentric in “Grey Gardens,” might have aspired to. It’s just that Vreeland could function on the ceiling.

It’s nice to see vintage superstar models, great photographers, and important designers get enthusiastic about her. The best is the model China Machado, who offers a scary defense of Vreeland in a way that would make you afraid to work for her, too. It’s also nice to be reminded of Vreeland’s progressive, occasionally shocking taste. World War II had just ended, and she was putting bikinis in Bazaar. She was the first to put Mick Jagger and his amazing lips in Vogue. She loved photographing Veruschka and Streisand and Cher. She hired women with long necks, big eyes, freckles, and Lauren Hutton’s dental gap. It’s possible and entirely valid to leave this movie with the impression that clothes weren’t fashion to Vreeland. People were.