Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Match Made in Los Angeles

Finally! I just finished watching Chris and Don: a Love Story, Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s documentary about the three-decade relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and it was just about what I’d hoped it would be.

For those who have no idea whose these guys are: the English-born Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) was a novelist, best known for his stories about Berlin in the 1930s which eventually were adapted for the musical Cabaret. He was close and sometimes intimate friends with some notable names in Brit Lit from the first half of the 20th century: W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, E. M. Forster. Much of his fiction is semi-autobiographical at least, and for me he didn't really hit his stride until he switched to straight memoir, especially Christopher and His Kind (1976). But it has been thirty years since I've read his novels, so it may be time to go back and reread them. A Single Man (1964), especially, was a remarkable work for its time, and it has held up well, maybe even looking better in the post-Stonewall era.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, he and Auden moved to the US. Auden stayed in New York, but Isherwood moved to and settled in California.

I must have heard about Isherwood first in the early 1970s, around the time he came out in his memoir of his parents, Kathleen and Frank (1971). I learned about Bachardy a little later. Probably it was in The Advocate or The Body Politic that I first saw the now-iconic photograph of the two of them shortly after they became involved: Bachardy in a white t-shirt and chinos, grinning his gap-toothed grin, looking about sixteen years old; and Isherwood in a casual suit, crewcut, looking more like father and son than a couple. (The only copies of that photo I could find online were incorporated into the poster for Chris and Don, like the one above.)

Many times since then I’ve read about how Bachardy and Isherwood met when they were eighteen and forty-eight respectively; how Isherwood’s friend, the psychologist Evelyn Hooker, nervously threw them out of the garden house where Isherwood had been living; how Bachardy became a distinguished artist; and so on until Isherwood’s death of cancer in 1986. But between that iconic photo shoot and the later photographs I saw of Bachardy with silver hair, I knew very little about they got from the beginning to the end. Granted, that's not my business, but even now that I'm a confirmed bachelor, as they say, I'm still curious about how good relationships work.

In particular I recall an interview Isherwood and Bachardy gave to Armistead Maupin for the Village Voice in 1985, as the first time I learned how they got along as a couple, how they negotiated conflicts -- for example:
Chris, why do you lie in the back seat when Don is driving?
CI: Because I believe I'm the only person who's fit to be on the road at all; therefore, I prefer to just miss it when other people drive.
DB: For years, it was one of the real bones between us, Chris's objection to my driving. Years ago we used to have to drive our own cars to the same destination to avoid the fights. I can't even remember now whose idea it was, but one of us decided that Chris should not only sit in the back seat, but that he should lie down so he couldn't see what I was doing. And once we discovered that, it was bliss.
There was also this very sharp remark about AIDS by Isherwood, which I'd almost forgotten until now:
But these younger men who find they have it-some absolutely awful pressures begin to assert themselves. They're told by their relatives that it's a sort of punishment, that it's dreadful and it's God's will and all that kind of thing. And I think they have to get very tough with themselves and really decide which side they're on. You know, fuck God's will. God's will must be circumvented, if that's what it is.
And it was gratifying to encounter this closing line in the interview:
Do you and Chris sleep in the same bed?
DB: We always have. And not only in the same bed, but really, you know, intertwined.
So one of the great pleasures of Chris and Don is the home-movie footage of the two, and the many photographs of Bachardy in his late 20s and early 30s. Evidently most of these bits were taken by Isherwood and Bachardy themselves, taking turns with an 8mm camera. The two of them at home; Don standing on the beach as Chris pans the camera upwards from his feet in the sand to his beaming face; on an ocean liner leaving New York harbor for on their first voyage to Europe; in Key West for the filming of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo. The image quality of these clips is surprisingly good, in full color, and gives an eerie sense of you-are-there-ness. The movies and still photos provide Bachardy aging gracefully from the pretty boy of 1953 to a very distinguished-looking man. (Photo below from here.)

Aside from the obvious English accent that Bachardy had picked up from Isherwood, he now sounds (and occasionally looks) like Katherine Hepburn at times. I was shocked when what I thought was Bachardy’s high-pitched voice on the soundtrack turned out to be Isherwood’s, from a BBC interview in 1972. I can see why some people thought that Isherwood had cloned himself in Bachardy.

How things have changed since the 1950s! A documentary like Chris and Don, about the love between two men, could never have been made then. It's important to have these documents, and Chris and Don is an immensely satisfying one.