The death of Bill Cunningham in 2016 marked the end of an era with the disappearance of his candid snapshots from the “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” Sunday columns in The New York Times. The self-effacing fashion historian’s monastic dedication to his work, along with the unbridled joy he drew from it, were celebrated in Richard Press’ gorgeous 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York. First-time director Mark Bozek now takes an expansive view of the subject in The Times of Bill Cunningham, a captivating portrait built around a previously unseen interview he shot with the photographer in 1994.
Does this new film shine much fresh light on a life already so affectionately examined in the earlier close-up? Aside from the gratuitous dissing of the Press doc — when Sarah Jessica Parker reads Bozek’s scripted narration, making the unverifiable claim that the 2011 film’s success and the public recognition it brought Cunningham made him uncomfortable — perhaps not. But if you have a subject as delightful and forthcoming as the self-invented shutterbug, not to mention decades’ worth of fabulous footage and photographic records of high and low fashion, you really can’t have too much of a good thing.
A unique New York story, worth telling twice.
Bozek, whose background is in fashion marketing, television production and 20-plus years as a QVC exec (he was the basis of the Bradley Cooper character in David O. Russell’s Joy), began work on the film the day Cunningham died, aged 87. He dug out the long-lost video interview, which had been planned as a quick 10-minute chat but ended up a life-spanning reflection that continued until the tape ran out. During production on the doc, Bozek scored access to Cunningham’s vast photo archives covering six decades, including a wealth of previously unpublished material from the pre-New York Times years.
For someone inherently shy and unfailingly modest about his achievements, Cunningham is a brilliant interview subject. His words are buoyed by the infectious enthusiasm, the sense of gratitude even, that he shares about having been able to carve out a significant career doing something he loves. “A luxury,” he calls it, bringing an exciting sense of discovery to each new day on the job. And he was always on the job. Parked on his favorite corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, or whizzing about New York in his customary uniform of a blue French sanitation workers’ jacket on a series of 25 bicycles in as many years — “The cheaper the better. They’re only gonna steal it!” — he was never without his camera.
With prompts from Cunningham at every step, Bozek guides us through the subject’s life from his conservative Boston Irish-Catholic upbringing to his arrival at 19 in New York, where he worked in advertising at the chic department store Bonwit Teller. Having fooled around making hats since he was 10, Cunningham began sidelining as a milliner, fashioning fantasy headgear that was much in demand during the explosion of postwar fetes and costume balls. But Bonwits fired him when they learned that his attention-getting creations weren’t being sold in their stores.
It’s the chronicle of this period in particular that makes Cunningham’s career such a wonderfully New York-centric story — of a creative artist propelled by drive, resourcefulness and fortuitous connections, though seemingly not by the usual fundamental quality of guile. He secured himself a small apartment to use as a studio, rent free in exchange for janitorial duties, earning a modest income delivering lunches on Madison Avenue and working nights at a Howard Johnson’s.
He was drafted during the Korean War and stationed in France, where he attended the Paris fashion shows for the first time while also selling his hats to major designers like Schiaparelli. Back in New York, he started working for the influential couture salon Chez Ninon, where his association with future first lady Jacqueline Bouvier began.
Perhaps prefiguring by several decades the colonization of Hollywood by the personal stylist, Cunningham makes amusing comments about how the movie sirens of the time, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor among them, had little style of their own and were not Chez Ninon’s ideal customers. The store’s preferred clients instead were sophisticated socialites like Babe Paley and Slim Keith. By contrast, Cunningham admits he never cared about his own wardrobe, relying on thrift stores and castoffs, often from widows offloading their late husbands’ clothes. He may be the only person who ever went to lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor wearing hand-me-downs.
Around this time in the mid-1950s, Cunningham moved into a small apartment in the legendary Carnegie Studios above the concert hall that would become his home and personal archive for the next half-century. The astonishing cast of famous-name artists and eccentrics who lived in these cramped residential apartments over the decades has been widely documented, but it’s nonetheless a treat to hear Cunningham talk of his more memorable neighbors.
John Fairchild, the editor who transformed Women’s Wear Daily into a fashion force, pulled Cunningham into journalism, though the latter is characteristically humble about his efforts as a writer. (Bozek omits any mention of Cunningham’s posthumously discovered memoir Fashion Climbing, published this year.) Only in the ’60s when a friend gave him his first camera and told him to use it like a notebook did he find his métier. But although the self-taught photographer began shooting runway shows, he really found his calling capturing idiosyncratic New York street style.
While much of the world was becoming increasingly fixated on the cult of celebrity and the dream factory of Hollywood, Cunningham was more interested in “how women dressed in their own lives.” Paradoxically, however, it was a lucky 1978 shot of that most elusive symbol of iconic silver-screen glamour, Greta Garbo, wearing a nutria coat, that opened the doors to his long association with The New York Times.
There’s a dizzying array of fashion visuals here, both shots by Cunningham and extensive material documenting the decades during which he lived and worked. The image quality varies wildly, but the sheer volume alone almost dictates a second viewing to take it all in. Bozek and editor Amina Megalli could perhaps have streamlined a more elegant narrative out of all this, and Parker’s linking commentary is often flowery and overwritten. But the film is never less than charming, imbued with genuine fondness for its subject.
What it captures most essentially is the distinctly egalitarian philosophy with which Cunningham approached his chosen field — pegged far more to dressing with flair and imagination than to high-end designer access. He also was perceptive on the ways in which fashion reflects what’s happening in terms of the politics and social movements of any particular time. And it’s especially refreshing, in this age of spotlight-seeking protagonism, to spend time with an artist whose modus operandi was to remain invisible. “We’re not the story,” he says at one point.
Even more so than the earlier documentary, this one keeps a discreet distance from questions about Cunningham’s sexuality and private relationships; though much can be inferred from his exhaustive photo-documentation of Pride parades and other LGBTQ events, starting long before they received general media coverage. In one of the most moving moments in the film, he tears up remembering the devastating losses of the AIDS crisis, his voice breaking as he recalls departed friends, like the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, the subject of a recent doc by James Crump.
The real strength of Bozek’s film is how much of Cunningham’s own voice it gives us. Just listening to him on the milestone 1973 Versailles show that grouped together the work of five leading American fashion designers with that of five French counterparts is a rare pleasure. Describing the then-revolutionary innovation of having beautiful African-American models take empowering command of the runway, he calls the moment, “pure raw talent pressing on the raw nerve of the time.”
The Times of Bill Cunningham above all reveals a man who found his vocation looking for beauty without ever placing a rigid definition on it, happy to remain in the background while never losing his appreciation for the expressive signature of individual style.
Production company: Live Rocket
Director-writer: Mark Bozek
Producers: Mark Bozek, Russell Nuce
Executive producers: Dan Braun, Brendan & Kathleen FitzGerald, Stephane Marsil, Michael Phillips, Susan Rockefeller
Editor: Amina Megalli
Narrator: Sarah Jessica Parker
Venue: New York Film Festival (Spotlight on Documentary)