Saturday, December 12, 2009

Return of Christopher Isherwood, Part 1: "Chris and Don, A Love Story"

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.  Some day all of this will have to be developed, fixed...”---Christopher Isherwood, "Goodbye to Berlin".

With the release of the new film "A Single Man" with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, it's likely that we will see a re-emergence and renewed popularity of author Christopher Isherwood, on whose novel this film was based. (I will return here with a review as soon as I have screened the film.)

Isherwood's may not be a household name, and most of his writing is little-known outside of literary circles.   Yet his work has affected me deeply, in particular his "Goodbye to Berlin" stories, which were transformed into a play, and a non-musical film, and a Broadway musical, and finally into the movie "Cabaret".  It was after my first screening of "Cabaret", at age 14, that my sense of what film artistry could achieve were forever changed.  (In Part 2 I revisit "Cabaret".)

The story of Isherwood's life, especially his life-relationship with his partner, Don Bachardy, stands as an unassailable example of the validity, beauty, and strength of a marriage between two men, and a quiet inspiration to those who are witness to their amazing story.

A remarkable documentary film was released last year, "Chris and Don: A Love Story," which Mark and I watched at home recently.  Using an extended interview with the aging Bachardy, the film effectively combines rare home movie footage, Hollywood film clips and stills, delightful animated sequences, and recreated scenes, to paint a picture of Christopher Isherwood that is clear, watchable, and inspiring.  Here was a supremely talented man whose particular talents fermented at the perfect time in history, and whose great love for his beloved Don suffused his life and art with passion. 

For its 90 minutes, I luxuriated vicariously in the life of this writer; his early days as a student in Berlin, the inspiration for his greatest work; his time in California where he joined the Hollywood elite (collaborating on screenplays for "The Great Sinner" with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner and "The Loved One" with Robert Morse), and where he first met Don; and their life as an unabashed couple at a time when most Hollywood personalities were buried deeply in the closet.

We also get an intimate portrait of Bachardy, in his own words, and in the words of Isherwood, read from his diary to spectacular effect by Michael York, who portrayed Isherwood's alter ego in the movie version of "Cabaret". It is easy to see why Isherwood loved him.  Bachardy is a handsome and wide-eyed young sophisticate who matured into a sensitive artist, always loyal to the love of his life.  (On a personal note, I have always been self-conscious about the gap in my front teeth... but seeing how adorable Don is with his tooth-gap, I began to feel rather proud!)

As an animal-lover, my interest was piqued early when Don revealed that Chris did not want them to have a pet.  He believed that the loving energy between the two of them would be siphoned off onto another creature.  To compensate, they created "animal" personae for themselves, Chris as an old dobbin horse, and Don as a mischievous cat...and these they used in letters and to each other to enable them to express intimate thoughts in a warm and cuddly way.....and to diffuse disagrements, resolve differences,  and build sentiment for each other.  These sequences have been rendered in unexpected and charming animation.

What a wonderful relationship they created!  Their 30-year age difference raised eybrows, but they managed to remain together until Isherwood's death, 33 years in all.  They never tried to appear straight in public, always attending functions as a couple, never with other women.  Isherwood wrote passionate entries in his diary declaring his love for Don, once even speculating what his life would be without Don at a time when Don contemplated leaving him.  "A Single Man" was based on this emotional episode.  Don's development into a painter is credited to the love and support he received from Chris.  They were so close,  Don began to assume Chris' speech patterns.

Amazing clips abound: scenes on the set of "The Rose Tattoo" in which Don appears as an extra, as he narrates ribald stories of meeting Annna Magnani; home movies and stills with Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, Igor Stravinski, E.M. Forster, even Marilyn Monroe; and revealing interviews with good friends Leslie Caron and Director John Boorman.  The filmmakers (Tina Mascara and Guido Santi) use meticulous research, and all the material they have gathered, for a direct, succinct, extremely moving personal journal of this extraordinary relationship.  Isherwood is memorialized appropriately for the lasting impact of his work; Bachardy is given his due as an artist who developed in his own right. 

There is an amusing sequence in which Don reveals Chris' displeasure with Liza
Minnelli's portrayal of Sally Bowles in "Cabaret"; he felt she was too polished, too talented, to be believable. This is followed by a clip of Liza defending his opinion, which she attributed to his  being close to the character for so long, and unaccustomed to other interpretations.

An extraordinary final sequence blends a montage of paintings by Don of the aging, and dying, Chris, while York reads a passage Isherwood wrote about death, and dying.  It is a tender reminder of the life that the survivor of a lost partner must carry on.

This is a small gem of a film that is easy to overlook.  I hope many of you see this terrific documentary...I think you'll be glad you did.


  1. A very interesting post, Tom. I admit I've never heard of Isherwood before, but your article paints such an intimate glimpse into his extraordinary life with Don that you feel like you know him. A really well done piece on a fascinating topic.

  2. Tom: I think we'll here his name a lot in the weeks ahead, what with the release of "A Single Man". You are not alone...most of my friends were unfamiliar with Isherwood...It was only my fascination with "Cabaret" that kept him in my mind all this time...and I'm glad that I may have been able to create more interest in him through my pieces. Thank you for following them!