Behind many a GLBT writer or artist is their GLBT muse. Often, it is the younger, less-accomplished or non-artistic partner who inspires their beloved to create great works. In the case of Don Bachardy and the late Christopher Isherwood, however, the opposite occurred.
As revealed in the excellent new documentary, Chris & Don: A Love Story (scheduled to open in New York June 13 and in Los Angeles July 4), it was Isherwood -- the older, world-renowned writer -- who served as muse to his significantly younger lover. Bachardy’s paintings reside today in the Smithsonian Institute, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, among other international collections. The artist is also the author and subject of numerous books.
By 1953, when 49-year old Isherwood met 18-year old Bachardy, Isherwood was famous as the author of several novels and the short-story collection, Goodbye to Berlin. The latter would be adapted to the stage as the play, I Am a Camera, and the musical, Cabaret. In 1972, Cabaret became an Oscar-winning film starring Liza Minelli and Michael York. York played the character most closely based on Isherwood himself and, appropriately, York narrates this film.
Isherwood met Bachardy and his older brother, Ted, on Santa Monica beach, and he befriended both young men. In Chris & Don, Bachardy candidly shares about Ted’s homosexuality as well as his own, and about his brother’s sad, life-long struggle with mental illness. An avid moviegoer, Bachardy is also blunt in his assessments of current actors, praising Josh Hartnett while critiquing Charlize Theron as "pretty but vacuous".
Initially, Bachardy wasn’t smitten by Isherwood and felt uncomfortable around Isherwood’s circle of friends, which included fellow writers Aldous Huxley, Paul Bowles, W.H. Auden, Tennessee Williams and Somerset Maugham, as well as composer Igor Stravinski. These are glimpsed in archival footage used for the documentary, in addition to numerous other celebrities who knew Isherwood and/or Bachardy.
In time, though, Bachardy and Isherwood fell passionately in love and shared more than thirty years together, until Isherwood’s death in 1986. The age difference between them and their openness about their relationship raised eyebrows at first, but they eventually became well regarded and even admired. Isherwood taught at several southern California universities and, in the 1970’s, became one of the first celebrity spokesmen for gay rights.
While Bachardy did at least partly inspire one of Isherwood’s later books, Christopher and His Kind, the documentary indicates it was Isherwood who was the greater muse in their relationship. He recognized Bachardy’s unexplored talent for drawing and painting, and encouraged his partner to go to art school. Once there, Bachardy’s skill developed rapidly and he became a prolific portrait artist. Bachardy had his first solo exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1961. Isherwood served as Bachardy’s first live model. Bachardy considers the full range of portraits he did of Isherwood between his initial sitting in 1953 and on the day of the author’s death as his best work.
I wasn’t very familiar with either Isherwood or Bachardy before viewing Chris & Don: A Love Story. The film, sensitively directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, is truly eye opening in regard to a variety of subjects: the homosexual subculture of the 1950’s and 60’s; Isherwood’s thoughts about Cabaret; the sexual and relational dynamics between older and younger men; and the literary environment of the early 20th century. There are also some charming animated segments in the film, which touchingly employ an old horse and a young cat who serve as Isherwood and Bachardy’s "alter egos".
Chris & Don certainly is a love story, and it impressively illustrates the key attribute that defines "true" love: one’s unselfish willingness to encourage one’s partner to become the best he or she possibly can. What’s more, the release of the film is timely given the recent California Supreme Court decision to make same-sex marriages legal. Isherwood and Bachardy can rightly be hailed -- along with many other, lesser known GLBT Californians and Americans -- who have paved the way for our growing equality.
UPDATE: Chris & Don: A Love Story is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.