"Chris & Don": an intimate look at a "charmed" Hollywood couple
The documentary "Chris & Don" chronicles the lifelong love story of Hollywood couple Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.
Special to The Seattle Times
When they met on a Malibu beach in 1953, Christopher Isherwood was 49 and Don Bachardy was 18.
They became lovers and companions for the next three decades, until Isherwood's death in 1986. While Isherwood became famous for the stories that formed the basis for the musical "Cabaret," Bachardy established himself as a portrait artist. Together they worked on screenplays, including an ambitious early-1970s take on "Frankenstein" that was shown on network television.
"They sort of lived a charmed life," said Tina Mascara, the co-director of a new documentary, "Chris & Don: A Love Story," which opens Friday at the Varsity.
"Don was so fortunate because it was not just a love relationship, it was a mentor-disciple kind of relationship," said her partner, Guido Santi, when they brought the movie to the Seattle International Film Festival in May.
"I think they lived in a sort of sheltered community, of people they knew in Santa Monica and in Hollywood," he said. As they grew older and demonstrated the stability of the relationship, they served as role models for other gay celebrities, including the late British director John Schlesinger and his partner.
Still, Santi added, "There were situations where Don was ostracized, or he felt like he was considered the young lover, the child prostitute." It took a while for even friends to acknowledge that Bachardy was an artist in his own right.
"People sometimes thought they were father and son," said Mascara. "Don tells a story about being in Monument Valley and meeting [director] John Ford, and I don't think they acted as a couple then. People could assume what they wanted to assume."
More often they would hang out at parties with kindred spirits such as Tennessee Williams or Somerset Maugham. And they didn't spend much time in gay bars, which were raided and closed by the Los Angeles police on a regular basis.
"I don't think they were as affected as other homosexual couples in the 1950s," she said. "Isherwood was so much older and he'd come to terms with it. He thought, 'Well I'm just going to live my life, I'm comfortable.' I think he set the precedent for even Don's interpretation of how they could be in public."
Santi and Mascara, who started dating after meeting several years ago in L.A., had been thinking about making a film after they met Bachardy.
"We were over for dinner, and Don showed us all this archival material — home movies, pristine 16mm prints," said Santi. "He showed us everything he had, and we got very excited. Then we just started by buying our own equipment and shooting. We applied for grants but that was difficult to get, so we decided to put it on a credit card."
"We didn't really know what the film was going to be until we started interviewing everybody," said Mascara, who ended up talking to Leslie Caron, director John Boorman and other friends of the couple. Eventually the filmmakers decided to focus on the relationship, even though Isherwood died so long ago.
"Don doesn't talk about himself," she said. "He talks more about what a contribution Isherwood made to his life. If he does talk about himself, he'll say, 'Well, I had a great role model.' "
"If you have dinner with him," said Santi, "it's always great stories about Isherwood and the things they did together. Isherwood taught him everything, from how to behave in life to what book he should read, and how to find his own vocation as an artist."
The filmmakers wanted to use clips from the 1955 movie "I Am a Camera," starring Laurence Harvey as Isherwood, but they proved too expensive. They had better luck with the stars of "Cabaret," Michael York and Liza Minnelli, who added their voices to the film. York narrates from Isherwood's diaries.
To fill in a few emotional blanks in the story, the filmmakers reluctantly decided to hire look-alike actors to play Isherwood and Bachardy. They're mostly seen in long shot.
"It was a big decision for us," said Mascara. "We didn't want to do any re-created scenes. Personally, we don't like them. But we didn't have the material we needed. We had photographs, but they weren't emotional. And we had to capture the emotion of their first meeting and a scene in Tangiers at Paul Bowles' place."
"We emptied out our apartment in L.A., and repainted and redesigned the place according to photographs we had of Bowles' place," said Santi. "We tried to imitate the style of the home movies by shooting stuff out of focus and handheld."
"Film can create the illusion of feelings," said Mascara. "We wanted to be able to dwell on those moments, and have them be visual. We wanted them to be important moments, and we didn't feel like a photograph would do it."
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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