Chris & Don
A Love Story

Zeitgeist Films,

Guido Santi
Tina Mascara

Don Bachardy,
Christopher Isherwood (archival footage), Michael York (voice), John Boorman, Leslie Caron, Jack Larson, Liza Minnelli., Gloria Stuart

Unrated, 90 minutes

Longtime Companions
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, May 2009

Chris & Don: A Love Story is a delightful documentary that celebrates one of the most famous longtime 20th century gay marriages - novelist Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy. Despite a thirty year difference in ages, the two men remained life partners for over three decades.

Their relationship was surprisingly open, if not always tolerated, for the time. Isherwood fell for Bachardy in 1952 when the lad was only 18. Isherwood became his mentor; he helped his younger lover fulfill his dream to become an artist while nourishing his intellect. Several friends remarked on how Bachardy acquired Isherwood's same mannerisms and speech patterns until you almost couldn't tell their voices apart (talk about finishing each other's sentences).

The difference in their ages certainly raised a few eyebrows - it didn't help that Bachardy looked younger than his years - nevertheless they were a famous couple at Hollywood parties and in literary circles. Don Bachardy is at the center of Chris & Don and narrates much of the film. He describes how thrilled he was, at such a young age, to be surrounded by so many famous movie stars but also recounts how overwhelmed he was to be in his early 20s and sitting down to dinner with such luminaries as Somerset Maugham, E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxely. He often felt ignored by his lover's friends; Isherwood had his literary reputation but who was this young kid? For years, Bachardy lived in his famous partner's shadow before blossoming into an artist in his own right.

Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) is probably best known as the author of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye To Berlin (1939), which were the basis of the popular Kander & Ebb musical, Cabaret. These tales were based on the years that Isherwood spent in Berlin, where he joined fellow British expatriate W.H. Auden to enjoy the unprecedented sexual freedom that was rampant before the rise of the Nazis. Isherwood, like Forster, was uncomfortable with his own class and wanted to experience carnal relations with a working class foreigner. He left Berlin in 1933 to search for a country where he could settle down with his German boyfriend - who was eventually arrested by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the situation in Europe, he, along with Auden, emigrated to America in 1939 and settled in California where he discovered a welcoming melting pot of fellow displaced artists.
Bachardy left home and moved to California with his older brother, Ted, during the early 1950s in the hopes of becoming an actor. Instead, under the tutelage and the unwavering support of the renowned author, Bachardy became an accomplished painter instead. Isherwood deeply loved this young man and was proud that he was able to mold him as he did. Their relationship was mutually enriching during a time when gay panic was the norm. They were saddened by their friend, actor Anthony Perkins, who struggled with his sexuality all his life while they were so comfortable with their's. They never attended functions with beards and went everywhere as a couple.
Bachardy shares his many memories; some bitter, some sweet. While enjoying a "honeymoon," they visited Monument Valley where John Ford was shooting a Western and assumed that Isherwood and Bachardy were father and son. He remembers a party at producer David O. Selznick's home where actor Joseph Cotton was drunk and railing loudly about disgusting "half men" whenever Bachardy was in earshot but silent when Isherwood was nearby. Bachardy's anecdotes are supplemented by various historians. One recounts how Isherwood had moved into a garden house on the property of psychologist Evelyn Hooker. She had studied the gay community in Los Angeles and published the first study to suggest that homosexuals were just as well-adjusted as heterosexuals. But even she was taken aback when the boyish Bachardy moved in with Isherwood and they were forced to find other lodgings.
This is a very honest documentary as Bachardy spills his guts about many personal matters. He is quite candid about how, after a few years with Isherwood, he was jealous of his elder lover's youthful adventures and wanted to experience a few of his own. The two men agreed to an open marriage and this arrangement worked for them both. Bachardy would go out "mousing" and Isherwood would ask him about his experiences while also enjoying a few of his own. But Bachardy also recounts how, as he came into his own as an artist himself, he contemplated leaving Isherwood for a younger man. He describes the early 60s as being their "bumpiest period" and that Isherwood's novel about a lost lover, A Single Man, was written during this time.
Still, their relationship would survive. Bachardy stayed with Isherwood until his death in 1986 from prostate cancer. This is the most moving and emotionally draining part of the film. Each day, during his extended illness, Isherwood continued to sit for Bachardy as he drew his portrait. During the last six months of his life, Isherwood was his partner's only subject. When he couldn't sit for long periods anymore, Bachardy would capture his likeness in only a few lines. The montage in which the camera pans across these amazing drawings beautifully conveys how well the artist captured Isherwood's pain and how much love he bore for his subject..
Chris & Don benefits from the extensive presence of the surviving partner. He is a mischievous and candid master of ceremonies and his tales are awash with nostalgia. "[Isherwood's] role," says Bachardy, "could be described as that of the arch villain. He took this young boy and he warped him to his mold. He taught him all kinds of wicked things." He pauses, and then with a glint in his eye, laughs and says, "It was exactly what the boy wanted. And he flourished."
The remaining time is filled with rare home movies and archival footage in which the lovers are seen with such notables as composer Igor Stravinsky and the playwright Tennessee Williams on the set of The Rose Tattoo with Burt Lancaster and Anna Magnani. Excerpts from Isherwood's extensive diaries are read by actor Michael York - who played Isherwood's alter ego in Bob Fosse's 1972 film of Cabaret. Using a coded language between them, Bachardy and Isherwood depicted themselves as a cat and an old horse and some of their anthropomorphic letters and cards to each other are presented as cute animated sequences. There are also a few re-creations, most notably an episode when the two men went to visit author Paul Bowles in Tangiers. There, they weathered a bad hallucinogenic experience together which helped to cement their commitment.

Directors Guido Santi and Tina Mascara spent 10 years making Chris & Don and the result is an obvious labor of love. Because of their longtime friendship with Bachardy they were granted access to all of the personal archives necessary in order to compose this wonderful film. Some documentaries can be very dry but this one has a lot of heart. In light of all the current debate regarding gay marriage, it is essential that such histories be remembered. It is an important story and its preservation on celluloid is most welcome.


More on Christopher Isherwood:
A Single Man

Christopher and his Kind