A tender account of a gay marriage

Posted: July 25, 2008

Chris & Don: A Love Story, a double portrait of the late writer Christopher Isherwood and his life partner, painter Don Bachardy, vibrates with life and love.

Principally, it is scenes from the marriage of a gay couple who defied homophobia, a 30-year age difference and the odds to create an enduring relationship. But this tender account from filmmakers Guido Santi and Tina Mascara also includes designs for living and recipes for a more perfect union. In part, the documentary answers the question of why some couples flourish and others flounder.

Chris and Don met, in 1953, on a Santa Monica, Calif., muscle beach where older men cruised for young blood. The British, boyish-looking Isherwood (best-known as the author of the Berlin Stories that are the basis of Cabaret) was 49 and the beach-boy Bachardy, a celebrity hunter and autograph hound, scarcely 18. What developed was an asymmetrical, although not untypical, relationship between a successful man and a trophy partner.

The filmmakers use home movies, Isherwood's keenly observed diary entries (read by Cabaret star Michael York) and Bachardy's shimmering paintings to tell their love story. Isherwood's comic drawings of himself as an old horse and Bachardy as a kitten are animated to give the flavor of the private communication between the lovers.

Early on in the affair, they went to Monument Valley where John Ford was shooting a film (possibly The Searchers) and where the legendarily macho director and his crew mistook them for father and son. There was more than a touch of parent/child in their relations. Initially, Isherwood nurtured the spawn he never had (soon, the California-born Bachardy would speak in Isherwood's cultivated cadences), and Bachardy got the encouragement he never received from his own father.

But Bachardy didn't like how Isherwood's famous cronies (Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley and Tennessee Williams among them) dismissed him as a boy toy.

An upper-class Brit conscious of his attraction to working-class men, Isherwood set about balancing their imbalance of power by encouraging Bachardy's creative life. He supported the hobbyist sketcher through art school, where the younger man developed his artist's eye and hand - and also his autonomy. By the early 1960s when Bachardy had a career, he wanted independence.

During the decade of open marriage, Chris and Don kept theirs together by negotiating rules of engagement. Don had room to roam if he was back by morning. John Boorman, the director and a friend of the couple, observes that of the Hollywood marriages he knows, Chris and Don's was the only one that lasted.

And so it did, until Isherwood's death, of cancer, in 1981. Bachardy documented his long good-bye in a series of haunting drawings seen on camera.

Though Isherwood's thoughts, profoundly expressed in his autobiography Christopher and His Kind (1976) and his religious memoir, My Guru and His Disciple (1980), are not explored here, the film is informed by the breadth of his and Bachardy's spiritual connection.

Chris & Don: A Love Story *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara. Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. With Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Leslie Caron

and Liza Minnelli.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (discreet sexual candor, artist-model nudity)

Showing at: Ritz at the Bourse

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215 854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.


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