I caught a preview screening last week of Chris and Don: A Love Story, a documentary about the 34-year relationship between the British writer Christopher Isherwood and the L.A.-born artist Don Bachardy, which has now moved into a few theaters. Isherwood was 48 in 1954 and already famous as the literary sidekick of the poet W.H. Auden and the author of The Berlin Stories, which gradually evolved by way of other hands into Cabaret. That was the year he met the 18-year-old Bachardy on a gay beach in Santa Monica. Despite the difference in their ages and background each of them appears to have decided pretty quickly that the other was perfect for him. They entered upon a marriage in all but name — including the rocky patches — in which Isherwood was lover, mentor, father figure and cheerleader for Bachardy and Bachardy was muse, protector and pipeline-to-the-present for Isherwood.
The film that Guido Santi and Tina Mascara have made about them, with Bachardy, now 72, as an on-camera presence, is warm and funny. It’s a bit sappy in places — I could have done without the animated passages based on their postcards to each other in which Isherwood is an old horse and Barcardy is a cat. The English love infantile pet names. But a lot of it is genuinely moving. (It helps that Bachardy and Isherwood filmed themselves quite a bit over the years in color home movies.) In effect Bachardy became an artist as a way to survive his relationship with Isherwood. Or to put it another way, to allow the relationship to survive, he went out and got a job that was more than a job. It gave him an identity, you could almost call it a plausibility, that kept him from being overwhelmed by his more famous lover.
It only worked because he could really could draw. Really draw. It’s too bad that you don’t see more of his drawings in the film, though you do see some of the harrowing final portraits he made of Isherwood. Towards the end of Isherwood’s life, when he was dying of prostate cancer in the mid-1980s, Bachardy drew him constantly, as many as nine portraits a day, and made a final one of him in death. It was a project that made them collaborators right to the end. At the preview I attended Bachardy spoke to the audience afterwards and said he hoped his drawings of Isherwood, which cover decades of their time together, would be collected into a book.
Isherwood and Bachardy were good friends with David Hockney, another Brit transplant to sunny California. They sat for one of Hockney’s double portraits, a particularly good one, in which Isherwood looks fiercely towards Bachardy, who simply stares more or less in our direction. The film alludes to the rough patches in their history, which includes a period in the early ’60s when Bachardy got restless, which led Isherwood to write his fascinating novel A Single Man, about a man in L.A. in the early 1960s who just happens to be gay and who loses his lover. (Really loses him; in the book it’s to an accident.) It’s one of the most matter-of-fact gay novels ever written, no camp, very little blah blah blah about the plight of gays. Just a dry-eyed and moving story about a man, and something difficult has happened to him. And this years before Stonewall.
The Hockney portrait, with its hint of bristling discontent, or at least anxiety and suspicion, was painted a few years after that. And that discontent is what makes it, just like his portrait of Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark……
…..a great and unusual addition to the long tradition of English marital portraits.
So there may have been even more scenes from this marriage then the film lets us in on. Then again, show me the marriage where that’s not true.