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Bill Cunningham New York: A wistful portrait of an enduring eccentric

Bill Cunningham at work in a scene from "Bill Cunningham New York."

First Thought Films

3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

A documentary portrait of a New York Times fashion and society photographer, Bill Cunningham New York is as winning as its subject, the affable chronicler of New York style from the sidewalk to the runway. The handsome, jovial 82-year-old, on his 29th Schwinn bicycle (he's had 28 of them stolen), scoots between taxis through the streets of Manhattan. He lurks in doorways or gets down on the ground to photograph women's legs and footwear. He bounces into fancy parties where every celebrity seems to shake his hand or air-kiss him. The film's cameraman seems to struggle to keep up with his breakneck pace as he gathers material for his two weekly photo columns for the Times: the street-fashion montage On the Street, and the society-events page Evening Hours.

This is a kind of exalted home movie, if your home happens to be The New York Times. The film is directed by Richard Press, a former freelance art director at the paper, and produced by his husband, Philip Gefter, a former picture editor, with the venerable newspaper stepping in as a co-producer. Not surprisingly, it's a cinematic mash note, but apparently a deserved one. Cunningham, when he occasionally comes to rest, is a charmer, a man whose manners and warmth feel old school in the best sense.

As well, the film makes the argument - articulated by various Manhattan fashion and society experts - that Cunningham is not just good company but a kind of cultural anthropologist, recording the changing street life of one of the world's great cities. Author Tom Wolfe praises his gift for gliding effortlessly among the status-climbers and old money. (We see him shooting Mary Astor's 100th birthday party.) Though he habitually dresses in a blue workman's jacket, or in a rain jacket patched with tape, he's respected for his keen trend-spotting gifts: "We all dress for Bill," says Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who says it's a bad day when he declines to photograph her.

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The film is somewhat less successful in probing his limited private life. Even his close colleagues know little about him. Some suspect that he comes from money (he doesn't). They have an impression that he lives alone, which he does, but the only surprise is that the monkish asceticism of his life seems so at odds with his love of that flamboyant fashion. His home is a studio apartment (shared bathroom, no kitchen) in Carnegie Hall, where he has lived since he opened his millinery shop there in the 1940s. Most of his living space is taken up with precarious stacks of filing cabinets, filled with his photographs over the years.

We also learn that central to his aesthetic is the question of creative freedom. When Women's Wear Daily editors changed the meaning of one of his photo layouts - from a celebration of ordinary women wearing adaptations of runway looks to a mockery of them - he resigned in protest. Another editor, who started the original Details magazine in the early eighties, recalls how he tore up the first few cheques she gave him, because he felt that as long as he wasn't being paid, he could shoot what he wanted.

Only when the off-screen filmmaker asks about his lack of a romantic history and his lifelong Catholicism does Cunningham become briefly ill at ease, passing his hand over his face in embarrassment. The moment is poignant but also feels gauche. Whatever Bill Cunningham's story is, the church's influence on him isn't simple: As a child, he says, he loved to go to mass so he could look at women's hats.

Bill Cunningham New York

  • Directed by Richard Press
  • Starring Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe and others
  • Classification: PG


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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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