What an extraordinary and unusual love story it turns out, by its end, to be, that of the long, devoted gay partnership between author-screenwriter Christopher Isherwood of "Cabaret" renown and the young Los Angeles man 30 years his junior.
They met on a beach when Don Bachardy was only 18 years old—a tawdry beginning, to be sure. But they lived together for more than 30 years, indisputably the love of each other's life and forerunners of today's openly gay relationships.
This documentary, directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, is both intimate and compelling, offering a three-dimensional portrait of both men and evoking, through home movies and still photos, lost worlds of 1930s Berlin and 1950s Hollywood. Interspersed with the more traditional interviews and narration from Isherwood's diaries—read aloud, with poignant casting, by "Cabaret" star Michael York—"Chris & Don" visually and verbally brings the past to life and not only recounts this partnership, but dissects it.
Bachardy is interviewed throughout and followed as he goes about in his senior years, long after Isherwood's 1986 death at age 81. His memories, viewpoints and confidences are intriguing, but they're also integral components of an intensely psychological profile. Isherwood and Bachardy are not just lovers of widely separated ages. Bachardy was also a kind of Trilby to Isherwood's Svengali. He was so young and unformed when he fell under Isherwood's wing that he was brought into adulthood and maturity as if Isherwood were his parent—a parent who was an international artist and Hollywood bon vivant. There are even slightly creepy hints that Bachardy became something of an Isherwood clone—though a native Californian, he speaks with an English accent and even mimics Isherwood's mannerisms, inflections and verbal rhythms.
There's a bit of "Pygmalion" meets "The Portrait of Dorian Gray" to it, and yet part of the documentary's slyness involves probing those aspects while never losing sight of the pain and glories of any emotional relationship that lasts as long as this one. One sad segment deals with the exciting list of acquaintances Bachardy got to meet— Montgomery Clift, Tennessee Williams, Igor Stravinsky, to name but a few—only to be treated as Isherwood's plaything. He had no background to enable him to converse with such giants. At one party, Joseph Cotten derided gays within Bachardy's earshot in ways he never would have dared if Isherwood were near by, or so Bachardy suspects.
And Isherwood helped Bachardy find himself, however tailored that self may have ended up being. He emerged as a talented illustrator and portrait painter, often persuading celebrities to pose for him and sketching Isherwood himself, even during the days when the author was dying. He drew his longtime companion relentlessly and obsessively as he drifted away, a final testament to their alliance not just in love, but in art.
Running time: 1:30. Opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema.
No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for adult subject matter and language).