Film : Happily ever after: "Chris & Don"
Despite signs of an increasing acceptance of homosexuality in American culture, Hollywood seems to portray gay relationships as primarily tragic. The independent documentary, "Chris & Don. A Love Story," playing Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, rejects that pattern and chronicles the successful, long-term relationship between famed British writer Christopher Isherwood and the much younger artist Don Bachardy.
Directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi have created a film that is complex, moving, and insightful. Segments from the Isherwood diaries read by actor Michael York keep the writer's voice alive, while interviews with Mr. Bachardy, now 74, at the Santa Monica home he shared with the late Mr. Isherwood keep the film from getting too sentimentally stuck in the past.
The cat and old horse cartoons the couple used to communicate with each other have been turned into animated sequences that capture another side of their relationship. Old home movies of the life partners bring significant moments alive. Archival footage includes clips from old movies. Although sometimes awkward, occasionally inserted scene reenactments are not overly intrusive. Friends like actor Leslie Caron weigh in, adding yet another dimension.
The documentary begins with a biographical portrait of Mr. Isherwood. The writer, best known for "Berlin Stories" and "I Am a Camera," on which "Cabaret" was based, came from an aristocratic English family whose values he rejected. After spending years in Berlin and, after the advent of Hitler, other European cities, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. He was 48 when he first met 16-year-old Don Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach in the early 1950s.
The 30-plus years difference in their ages shocked many people then, as it still may today. The openness of their relationship also demonstrates their capacity to buck the prevailing tides. The couple felt no need to remain in the closet at a time when homosexuality was taboo, even in Hollywood.
As a prominent novelist and playwright of his times, Mr. Isherwood moved in literary circles with the likes of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Aldous Huxley and E. M. Forster, and socialized with some of the movie stars his young partner idolized. In this heady company, Mr. Bachardy was often ignored or treated with contempt. But the age difference proved to be just one of the challenges the two faced.
Much as Mr. Isherwood might have rejected his background, he was still an English aristocrat, while Mr. Bachardy came from a middle-class California family. Echoes of Isherwood's cultured English accent appear in the film's interviews of the aging Bachardy. "I couldn't help it," he candidly confesses, when asked about it. "I'm an unconscious impersonator."
Mr. Isherwood proved a doting mentor for Mr. Bachardy, never trying to lock him in perpetual childhood, but encouraging him to develop his artistic talent and sending him to art school. Mr. Bachardy became an accomplished artist with a clientele of celebrities.
Once he found his calling, Mr. Bachardy started to spread his wings in other ways, and the two separated for a short period while the younger man explored other relationships and Isherwood taught in San Francisco. In the end, the separation proved to strengthen their devotion to each other. When Mr. Isherwood returned to Santa Monica, the two wrote half a dozen movie scripts together.
In 1981, Mr. Isherwood was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and when he became bed-ridden during the last six months of his life, Mr. Bachardy took care of him. His remarkable sketches depict Mr. Isherwood's steady descent toward death. Like any true love story, theirs reveals a commitment more liberating than confining.
"Chris & Don. A Love Story," celebrates normalcy in gay partnership. Like "Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired" and "Guest of Cindy Sherman," it falls within a group of documentary films circulating here recently, thanks to the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, that explore unconventional sexual and love relationships. Taken together, they suggest an encouraging trend toward a more open and accepting society.
Chris & Don. A Love Story, Sat., Dec. 13, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. $8; (Film Society members $5). Doors open at 7 pm.
Brooks Robards regularly writes on film, art, and books for The Martha's Vineyard Times.