Chris & Don: A Love Story (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

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film_chris-don_sm.jpgIn an era when most gay people were closeted, Isherwood and Bachardy did not hide their relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Long before anyone was talking about gay marriage, that's what Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had: a long-term intimate relationship between two independent adults, each of whom was the most important person in the world to the other. Chris & Don: a love story, an affecting new documentary by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, tells the story of their relationship within the context of their artistic careers and the largely homophobic climate of the United States in which they lived.

Isherwood, best known today for writing the source material for I am a Camera and Cabaret, had a proper British upbringing including university studies at Cambridge, which he deliberated rejected in favor of a journey of self-discovery which included the homosexual underground of Berlin, travels to China with his friend W.H. Auden, emigration to America in 1939, and the embrace of Hinduism. Bachardy grew up in Los Angeles, a handsome, artistic young man who loved the movies and was fascinated with Hollywood celebrities.

They met in 1953: Bachardy was 18 and Isherwood 49. They soon became lovers, beginning a relationship which would last until Isherwood's death in 1986. Initially there was a huge power imbalance in the relationship: besides the age difference, Isherwood was a celebrity writer while Bachardy was still growing up. One result was that Bachardy recast himself in Isherwood's image: friends remarked on how quickly he adopted Isherwood's British accent and mannerisms, and they were sometimes mistaken for father and son.

Isherwood encouraged Bachardy to develop his talents and paid for him to attend art school, where he thrived. As Bachardy began to develop his own identity and experience professional success, he considered leaving Isherwood, and even did so for a brief period, but returned after realizing the strength of their bond. They had an open relationship, which they discussed frankly: after Bachardy returned from a night of cruising, which Isherwood called "mousing," the two of them would discuss the evening's catch.

In an era when most gay people were closeted, Isherwood and Bachardy did not hide their relationship. Bachardy recalls attending parties as a couple, when other gay men (in some cases, men with whom they had had sex) were also present with their wives or girlfriends of convenience. Isherwood's fame protected him from at least some overt expressions of homophobia, but Bachardy did not have this advantage: he recalls Karl Malden at a party referring disdainfully to "half men" in his presence, when Isherwood was out of the room.

Their professional collaborations came to little (one script was produced for television as Frankenstein: The True Story) but their relationship remained steadfast. When Isherwood was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Bachardy nursed him to the end. In the last 6 months of Isherwood's life, Bachardy drew and painted only Isherwood, creating a remarkable record of the writer's last months.

Santi and Mascara worked for ten years on this documentary, which they created from home movies, stills, contemporary interviews and the occasional re-enactment. Interviews with Bachardy are the heart of the film: still painting at age 74, he is eloquent and honest in recounting the many years of their relationship. Isherwood's voice is supplied by his letters and diaries, read by Michael York. The end result is a touching documentary that relates one of the great love stories of our time. | Sarah Boslaugh

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