Chris & Don. A Love Story Movie Review
Christopher Isherwood was one of the most prominent publicly homosexual personalities of his era. A successful writer from the 1920s on (he wrote the Berlin stories that evolved into Cabaret), he left his native England before World War II and crafted a nice life as a screenwriter and novelist in Santa Monica. It was there on a beach where Isherwood, age 48, came across 18-year-old local boy Don Bachardy and his older brother Ted. Both were gay, and both were quite ready to be welcomed into Isherwood's glamorous life. Don was the one who really captivated Isherwood, and they were soon living together with no secrets. If some observers thought they were actually father and son, then so be it.
Thanks to lots of home movies and the delightful reminiscences of Bachardy himself, we get a great sense for what it must have been like for this wide-eyed boy to suddenly find himself hobnobbing on movie sets with Burt Lancaster, enjoying his first transatlantic crossing and his first visions of Venice, and lunching on the veranda with the likes of E.M. Forster and Igor Stravinsky. A budding artist who was strongly encouraged by Isherwood to pursue his craft, Bachardy ended up sketching many stars of the time and is a successful portraitist to this day.
Of course, all was not perfect in paradise. As years passed, the two men had to legislate rules for carefully monitored infidelities, and Bachardy confesses to long struggles with inferiority complexes, problems that excerpts from Isherwood's famous diaries (read here by Michael York) confirm. Interspersed throughout are memories from celebrity friends, most notably a gracious Leslie Caron, who marvel at the ultimate strength of the Chris/Don bond.
The film is a chance for Bachardy not only to tie a neat bow on what has been a remarkable life but also to bring his beloved Chris back to life in a way. He shows piles of sketches he did of Chris as he faded away from prostate cancer in the mid-'80s, and we also get to see him indulging in his daily gym workouts and doing some nude portrait painting of handsome young men who come by his house to pose. Not bad for a 75-year-old! We also get a glimpse of Don's brother Ted who, nearing 80, has led a life ruined by mental illness. There but for the grace of God, opines Don.
The film's directors also include a few touches of delightful animation inspired by Don and Chris's pet personas for each other: a young cat being led around by an old horse. It's a playful and intimate way to take us even deeper into the private world of two gay men who chose to build a great life together at a time when few others dared to do so. Just ask Mrs. Rock Hudson.
Add some more hair on top.