Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes, 1935-1940 is a book full of beautiful images, overly focussed on George Platt Lynes and his circle, with merely a nod to the other arts (except those practiced by that circle) and to European art production (much less the rest of the world): a Voinquel photo here ; a Duncan Grant painting there …the rest is American, mostly Platt Lynes. The pictures are gorgeous, and some of them are of very famous people (Tennesse Williams, Yul Brynner). And there’s a great central idea behind the book; to search for the subjects of the pictures, find out what they are doing, and juxtapose photographs of them in the present with those of them in their youth (and which some of them had forgotten they’d posed for as many of the photos were only circulated privately).
I used to read Quentin Crisp avidly when he was writing for the gay monthlies in the 80s; but his introduction here seems posy, mannered, thin (and he was that but also much more than that). He talks of his own past posing nude and makes a common distinction between naked and nude; how nude was in the service of art and naked would have frightened the horses and resulted in jail time. Okey Dokey.
The book would have been better titled as Pioneering Male Nudes in the USA or some such. It’s organisation is meant to exude comprehensiveness: The Depression Years, 1935-1940; The War-Years; The Post-War Years, 1945-1950 but there are major photographers missing (Carl Van Vechten) and there is not a single photograph of a black man in the whole book. The work exudes US cultural imperialism in its choices and racism in its absences, and it’s not just because all of these nudes depict a particular Aryan ideal (even in the rare instance when the subjects are Latino).
Suddenly Last Summer is another of those films i seem to have been aware of my whole life but had never seen until now. It’s an extraordinary work, like three extended arias, a medium one by Hepburn at the beginning, a long one by Taylor through most of the middle, and then a coda by Hepburn once again as she goes up the lift and into madness. Taylor throws herself into the role and is quite extraordinary. But it’s Hepburn who is thrilling, an acting lesson for anyone interested in the subject, her line readings a work of art on their own. Mankiewicz films most of it in clever long takes that have a rhythm and find increasing intensity in extraordinary close-ups. Clift is sad to see, like a distorted dissolve of his previous self, and is there mainly as ‘straight man’ to set the context and feed the lines so that two great actresses can soar. The dialogue is self-consciously poetic, beautifully stylised, and yet one is lulled into…cannibalism, rape, madness, exploitation, cruelty. It’s quite something.
The film is almost incantatory, like a hallucinogenic.; the language is extraordinary; Mankiewicz’ direction is under-rated. And Hepburn is really in a league of her own. I can’t imagine even Bette Davis doing something so fine.
As for Taylor, can anyone think of another box-office queen who at the peak of her stardom performed Shakespeare, Williams, Albee, Rattigan, Marlowe and Dylan Thomas in major motion pictures?
The image in this Indicator edition is lovely, rich, deep black and whites with a whole array of greys in between. A wonderful ‘print’.
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.