The story of André Leon Talley deserves to be told, and producer/director Kate Novack works hard to do so with this documentary that is at once enlightening and somewhat evasive, much like its wonderfully showboating subject.
Perhaps that’s not surprising, though, as much of Talley’s early life was seriously tough, and he knows that he’s been awfully lucky to have been very much in the right place at the right time. And more than once.
Talley is preparing to pretty much retire from the fashion business and step down from being editor-at-large of America’s Vogue magazine, and his final farewell duties unfortunately coincide with the build-up to the 2016 Presidential. But don’t worry, as who would vote for Trump?
Lots of luminaries wax lyrical about how magical André is: designer and film director Tom Ford says that Talley’s crazy and “the last of his kind”; Anna Wintour is as gushy as she can be; and his old friends fondly talk about his huge personality. We then get to see the jumbo-sized Talley (now into his later 60s) hanging out at his gorgeous mansion in White Plains, New York, and clad in his usual caftan, jaunty hat and swank accessories. And although he’s obviously dressed up for the camera, he also scowls often and proves something of a grumpy old man as he tells off a bunch of nearby construction workers.
Talley tells his life story with the help of his pals and we’re treated to file footage of the era and the place (Durham, North Carolina) but little photographic evidence of André himself as a child and the strict grandmother he spent much of his time with. Segregation and ‘Jim Crow’ laws are discussed, but he doesn’t talk much about the race angle or any remaining anger: that’s for everyone else here to fill in.
Talley became fascinated with fashion in his pre-teen years but nevertheless tried other fields as a young man, penning a thesis on Baudelaire at Brown University and very nearly becoming a French teacher (beloved TV chef Julia Child, of all people, was an influence here). He knows his stuff too, casually throwing in references to Voltaire, Balzac and Tolstoy and describing his youth as being all about “narrative and anecdote”. Much of this doesn’t seem to be just showing-off for the filmmakers too, as it’s evidently the way his mind works.
When he moves into discussing the wild ‘70s, and we’re treated to photos and film of him working at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Interview magazine, as well as initially volunteering with Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he says that he didn’t really drink or do drugs, and he didn’t enjoy all the swinging sex going down at Studio 54 either. He implies that he had an affair with Karl Lagerfeld and had other relationships with men but doesn’t elaborate much.
After much glee and joy, Novack’s film ends on something of a double-bummer: first up Talley is again driven to lose weight, glimpsed reluctantly eating healthy slop at a diet centre, and then the unthinkable happens when Trump wins the election. Just for once, our hero has no witty comeback and sits there, speechless and stunned.
Rated PG. The Gospel According to André is in cinemas now.