Portrait of the artist as an old man.
One of the most acclaimed (94% at RottenTomatoes) documentaries of 2008, Chris & Don: A Love Story
(Zeitgeist) directed by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi, streets on DVD February 24. In anticipation of that, I finally got around to watching it, and found it to be a somewhat uneven mix of compelling glimpses into a celebrated couple's romance and unexplored or unexplained drama.
Christopher Isherwood, the Chris of the movie, was a respected writer of the 20th Century who was born in England but came of age in the sexually free Weimar Republic. He wrote stories in the 1930s that were paired and published as The Berlin Stories in 1945, which would eventually be adapted on the stage and on film as Cabaret. When he was nearly 50 and living in California, Isherwood began a brief affair with Ted Bachardy, but this soon transferred to what would be a life partnership with Ted's younger brother Don, apparently just 18 at the time.
Aren't all gay men starfuckers at heart?
The Bachardy Brothers are represented as impressionable, good-time guys who partied on the beaches of their home state and who would dress up in snazzy suits and sneak into movie premieres, taking pictures of each other with everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Bette Davis, even stars Don would later meet socially via Isherwood, such as Leslie Caron and Montgomery Clift.
Isherwood introduced Bachardy to lots of things—that was the core of their relationship.
Climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy...
The union was famous for its durability (open doesn't begin to describe it) and also infamous for the 30-year gap between the two men—an early image of the couple looks exactly like an Ozzie & Harriet-era father/son portrait. But they were unconcerned with appearances in that sense, even if their creative lives (Isherwood as a descriptive novelist and Bachardy, eventually, as an impressionistic painter) were all about appearances, capturing, interpreting and explaining them.
Isherwood (the smiling youth above and at left) has been dead for more than 20 years, but the film conjures his presence effortlessly via Bachardy's reminiscences, his inexhaustible supply of portraits of his partner and gorgeously well preserved, colorful home movies. It's as if the inscrutable writer is as alive as any of the others in the film, a list of interviewees that includes Caron, Liza Minnelli (Isherwood thought she was all wrong as Sally Bowles!) and, only in the DVD's extras, Titanic's Gloria Stuart, nearly 100 yet still sharp and salty.
Despite Isherwood being more famous, Chris & Don tends to center around Bachardy, now 74 years old, juxtaposing his wizened (but still quite gym-honed!) face and body with visual reminders that he was once an alluring teenage muse for the more worldly Isherwood. To Bachardy's credit, he was not simply a hot young piece of ass, but seems to have been successfully molded by Isherwood into a thoughtful and truth-seeking artist in his own right. Still, their relationship is daddy/boy beyond belief; Bachardy's affected-sounding British accent is revealed to be an echo of Isherwood's voice, which is supposed to connote his adoration but also made me wonder if the whole Svengali thing had gone too far. (Or, as with Madonna, it could just be that an American who lives with an Englishman is doomed to exhibit traces of that accent.
Back in the gay: W.H. Auden, Stephen Spende & Christopher Isherwood.
I would disagree with the DVD copy that says the film is "above all a joyful celebration of a most extraordinary couple" in that the documentary never feels joyful so much as uninhibited, and while some joyful-seeming times for this dynamic duo are recounted, the fact that they are ancient history now is somewhat sobering. Case in point: Ted wound up getting electro-shock therapy and is now elderly and morose, spending time cutting out Josh Hartnett photos and chastising Don for not appreciating Charlize Theron's beauty.