Monday, July 07, 2008

Chris and Don: A Love Story

This holiday weekend I decided with my friend Sue to celebrate the country's 232nd birthday by seeing this documentary, about the 30-odd year relationship between author Christoper Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. Isherwood, as you know was the writer of "Christopher and His Kind" and "Berlin Stories", which was the basis for the play and film "Cabaret". Bachardy became a noted portrait artist during his years with Isherwood, painting or sketching people from Governor Jerry Brown of California to film stars like Joan Fontaine (who famously despised the portrait) and Bette Davis (who did not).

Chris and Don met on Will Rogers beach in Santa Monica in the mid-fifties when Bachardy was 18 and looked younger. Isherwood was nearly 30 years older than Don, yet made no attempt to hide his relationship from the Hollywood circles he moved in. Some, as told in a funny anecdote about visiting the set of a John Ford movie simply thought (or chose to think) that they were father and son. Others (like Joseph Cotton, whom I previously would have thought better of...) were openly insulting to what they thought of as at best an ornament, at worst a catamite. Cotton loudly and publicly derided what he called “half-men.” Such good manners...

What makes the movie so compelling is Don Bachardy. It's clear that there was true love in that relationship; Bachardy admits that there were tensions based on both the age and class differences: middle-aged Isherwood was a Cambridge drop-out and grew up to the Manor (literally) born while Bachardy was raised by middle class parents in Glendale. Bachardy had wild oats he wanted to sow, and sow them he did with Isherwood's permission. He does admit that he forced Isherwood to do the same and was chagrined that Isherwood found young and attractive partners. Although there was their share of tension and more (after all in many states homosexuality was still illegal), you get the impression that not only was there a great deal of love there but quite a lot of respect.

Don is interesting- he's taken on the mannerism and even the speech of Isherwood, and sleeps in on a daybed in his office in their shared home. Full of life at 75 he no longer drives; he bikes around greater Santa Monica and (in a scene that caused my fellow to viewer to gasp "he's putting us to shame!") is shown merrily working out at his local gym. He also still works, he's shown with several life models on portraits. He's as trim and charming as the 18 year old man that Isherwood fell in love with.

In this year in which Gay Marriage is going to be a wedge issue, especially in California, it's interesting to note that there are relationships that on the surface seem to flout convention, but underneath it's the conventional, and wonderful emotions that are universal to us all.

Photo: Zeitgeist Film

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