A Life and Love in the Arts
'Chris & Don: A Love Story'
It was, by any measure, an extraordinary romance. The love affair between English novelist Christopher Isherwood and American painter Don Bachardy blossomed in the Southern California sun during the late autumn/early spring of 1952-53 and went on to traverse the next 30 years. Theirs was a love that could justifiably be described as transcendent – it bridged differences of age, class, and culture, along with the societal mores of its own era. Not even Isherwood's death from cancer (at age 81, in 1986) brought it to an end.
"Isherwood's life is its own film," says Guido Santi. Santi, along with his partner, Tina Mascara, is co-director of the elegant documentary feature Chris & Don: A Love Story. "As filmmakers," he continues, "rather than try to make a biopic from A to Z, we wanted to focus on what really interested us – the story of this incredible romantic and creative relationship."
Isherwood was 48 when he met Bachardy, and the two became lovers when Bachardy was only 18. Armistead Maupin described them as "the First Couple," in part because as far back as the 1950s, they refused to conceal their relationship from straight society – notably, in and around that hotbed of sexual paranoia, Hollywood.
From the beginning, they documented their lives to an extraordinary degree. Chris & Don beautifully preserves a range of archival material, most of it culled from Bachardy's personal collection (there are also photographs and paintings from celebrated friends, such as Cecil Beaton and David Hockney). Such is the wealth of striking materials – home movies, photographs, drawings, letters, and diaries – that one struggles to think of another artistic couple who so variously and assiduously documented their own lives.
Chris & Don seamlessly blends these materials, and the film's sense of intimacy is the work of directors who allow Bachardy to tell his own story without intrusion. In a further astute choice, Michael York was asked to read selected passages from Isherwood's diaries and stories. York, of course, played the lead in the film Cabaret (based on Isherwood's The Berlin Stories), and his voice remains as mellifluous as ever.
Somewhat belatedly, Bachardy managed to escape Isherwood's long literary shadow, finally achieving recognition as an artist in his own right. Although his emergence as a portraitist was his own triumph, it's one that would have been unthinkable without Isherwood's support and encouragement. Throughout their lives together, Isherwood remained his most vital and frequent subject, and during the last months of Isherwood's illness, Bachardy sat by his bedside every day, making drawings as his lover faded away before his eyes. The story of Isherwood's passing forms the emotional crux of the film.
"In one sense, the film is the story of an emerging artist," Mascara says. "Toward the end, Chris pointed at one of Don's drawings and, not fully lucid, said, 'I like that one of him dying.' Even at the very end, he was still encouraging him."
Chris & Don: A Love Story screens Saturday, Sept. 6, at 5:30pm.