Chris & Don: A Love Story (Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007) explores the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is a film everyone who sees it will have a lot to say about: the thirty-year difference in age; the enormous gap in social class; the equally wide gap in artistic achievement.
Both Isherwood and Bachardy were seminal figures in the Gay Liberation Movement of my youth and I felt I knew quite a bit about them: Isherwood, the left-wing, upper-class, pacifist, pal of Auden, the author of Goodbye Berlin, Isherwood and His Kind, I Am A Camera and A Single Man; Bachardy, the fashionable portraitist of Souther California’s most modish, famous and talented; both at the very the centre of a group of artists that included Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Hockney and so famous for their salons that George Cukor set the beginning of Rich and Famous at a party in their Santa Monica house; an out gay couple when there were no others and iconic for having the courage to be so.
However, I had never heard Don Bachardy’s voice and I was startled by it here. Why does a California native speak like an aristocratic Englishman?: that tone, that accent, that manner. A Queen is free to choose who s/he wants to be but the choice made is not without significance. He’s clearly submerged himself into his idea of Isherwood; his ideal way of being is that which Isherwood represented to him. Love, self-hatred, snobbery, fandom (and Bachardy liked to insert himself in the pictures of the movie stars he so worshipped) surely all played a role in such a choice. The film offers so much to think about and say, with perhaps very little that is good or enhances one’s appreciation of what they once represented.I at first found myself a little judgmental but then concluded that we each imagine and try to construct a way of being and a way of loving. Theirs worked much better than most.
Isherwood looks hale, avuncular, kind and patient throughout. Bachardy looks like a very young underage boy in the earliest of the gorgeous fifties colour footage we get to see, someone trying too hard to look young in the later footage, later still, someone whose subsumed their very being into that of another; when we see him talking to his brother, it’s like people from two worlds speaking across different cultures and bridging that gap with love, care and affection.
In letters and notes, Isherwood paints himself as an old pack horse; Bachardy is the mewling cat; they obviously loved each other very much; and like all gay couples then, invented what it meant to have a loving relationship for themselves. Isherwood’s Diaries, exhausting in their precision, perfection, and constancy are nonetheless very good at evoking this developing relationship in social contexts long gone and sometimes hard for us to imagine. What the film has to offer that one can’t get from the Diaries is the home movies. They show a lost world of sea voyages to glamorous European capitals. Their colours alone, the product of now disappeared film stock, evoke a lost word. They also afford the sight of the home in which so much took place, friendly but not usually open to guests like us, and of course the voices.
Isherwood/Bachardy meant a lot at a time when even a firmly shut closet door didn’t keep out the ill-wind of homophobia and it took guts to be out much less proud: few ventured to be open about gay relationships. There was always something touching about a couple’s desperate search for domesticity of the most basic and complacent kind being branded the worst kind of outlaws by society and all its structures of control, like insisting on living out an idea of sharing food when they’re sending drones out to bomb someone for making an omelette.
The fact that their relationship was seen to be so long-lasting was held up as a role model and somehow validating of gay relationships. They helped change the focus of the discussion from sex to love. The truth is always more complex than any attempt to represent it. I’m sure Isherwood/Bachardy will remain significant — Cabaret will go on ensuring that the writer of its original source material will be remembered; A Single Man might also add gloss to the shine of his reputation; Isherwood will carry on being one of the most celebrated of 20th-Century writers; the couple will carry on signifying, albeit perhaps differently, they will continue to mean a lot to future generations of gay men; they will continue to discomfort; and this film certainly adds to our knowledge.
Bette Davis — shown here fat in the fifties in one of those photographs Bachardy used to insert himself in and get celebrities to autograph later — once said that old age isn’t for sissies. But my lasting image of this film is that of an old sissy,colour-co-ordinated from tip to toe, riding out to the Farmer’s marker with a crew film behind him, and enjoying every moment of it and of where his life had brought him to; being brave about a lot of things, not least acknowledging his wants; and living them out with a few tears, panache and a great deal of love.
Available to see on Sky Arts