Astride his bicycle on the streets of Manhattan, dressed always in a blue work jacket, octogenarian Bill Cunningham looks like he could be a retired night watchman. He is, in fact, a watcher of sorts, recording fashion trends as they surface on the streets of New York by day and cataloging the glitzy charitable activities of high society by night; his photographs grace the pages of the New York Times in his weekly Style section columns "On the Streets" and "Evening Hours." The watcher becomes the watched in director Richard Press' Bill Cunningham New York. A warm, lively portrait of the artist that screened recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the documentary will resonate with New York Times' readers and fans of personal stories. It is a small film to be sure, but one with the potential to become a moderate box office success, particularly in urban arthouses.
Press and his producer Philip Gefter persevered for seven years to commit Cunningham to film. Intensely private, he just kept saying "no," relenting finally at a point when his life was about to irrevocably change. Press and co-cinematographer Tony Cenicola film him as he photographs everyday people he deems fashion trendsetters. The filmmakers follow him on his rounds to fundraisers, turn their lenses on to his cramped studio atop Carnegie Hall and leave the cameras running as Press and Gefter try to get him to talk (not always with success) about himself. Others weigh in with affectionate if not intimate reminiscences, including Tom Wolfe, Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, one-time Club Kid Kenny Kenny and socialite Annette de la Renta.
What gives the doc dramatic weight is Cunningham's precarious living situation. As tiny as his studio is, it's the place he's called home for 50 years. With Carnegie Hall about to undergo renovations, he, along with everyone else living there, is getting the boot. While some of his neighbors hope protests will have an effect, Cunningham looks at apartments. These scenes are poignant. His needs are very simple, as he lives an almost monastic life. He never eats at the fundraisers he attends. He never eats in restaurants. He does not drive a car. He wears the same thing every day. He has no partner. What he has are his bike, his photography and that studio. For him to leave it and move on is a very big deal.
It was worth all the time Press and Gefter spent getting Cunningham to commit to their project. He is a wonderful character, both modest and charming. After so many years putting other people front and center in his wonderful photo essays, it is high time that he takes a turn in the spotlight. He wears it well.
Director: Richard Press
Producer: Philip Gefter
Running time: 84 min
Release date: March 16 NY