Movies We Like
Chris & Don: a love story
The first thing that I loved about Chris & Don: a love story was the DVD sleeve—a black and white photo of two men, the titular love birds, with a clean white backdrop and the title spelled out in red, yellow, and blue lettering in a font that could be described as optimistic looking. It has the effervescent simplicity of a Hockney painting. Even the fact that “a love story” is left lowercase gives clues to the sweet and simple nature of the love story at hand. The film profiles two celebrated men, novelist Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardi, and their relationship together as lovers that constituted as much a marriage as anyone’s. During a time when the idea of a homosexual was someone who was tragic, dysfunctional, and, above all, essentially alone, they lived openly and unapologetically together. And as filmmaker John Boorman points out, they were the only Hollywood couple he knew who actually stayed together.
Theirs is a California story, two men who met on a Santa Monica beach in the 1950s when Don was a teenager from Glendale and Chris was a novelist with a flourishing career. People, even some of their friends, were scandalized by the age difference. Chris was a man of the world. Born in 1904, he had a privileged upbringing in England and was educated at Cambridge before eventually absconding to Berlin to shake off his family’s stifling expectations and to experience the sexual freedoms famously associated with Germany under the Weimar Republic. He later distilled his experiences into a short story collection that became the inspiration for the play and later film Cabaret. Don was a boy who loved movies and movie stars and was in the early days of his first sexual experiences when he met Chris. They couldn’t have been more different, but they were drawn to each other almost immediately.
Chris and Don knew everyone who was anyone in L.A. at a time when that would have actually been an attractive prospect, and their circle of friends reads like a who’s who of the gay literary giants of the 20th Century: W.H. Auden, Somerset Maugham, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote. Chris introduced Don to his movie star friends, which delighted Don, but he came to see how little these people respected him. He ruminates in the film on how the Hollywood community wouldn’t dare be rude to Christopher Isherwood because of his status, but being both gay and a young person made Don a perpetual outsider and he resented it.
With Chris’s encouragement Don eventually enrolled in art school and his incredible talent was developed there. Don went on to have a hugely successful career as a portrait artist and this made Chris extremely proud. It’s hard to overstate how sweet the two of them are. In the vintage film clips of their trips around the world together they could pass for father and son, and Chris admits to, at times, feeling as though Don is like a son to him, but, of course, they are first and foremost a couple, and as Don becomes an important artist in his own right his confidence in himself grows.
Eventually Chris is diagnosed with prostate cancer and Don takes care of him until the end of his life. He died in 1986 in their Santa Monica home. Towards the end of his life Chris becomes Don’s only portrait subject and we see the final paintings done right up until the end of his life, his body growing smaller and his face full of agony. There is something incredibly beautiful about these paintings, the way Don expresses his love for Chris, and his courage in facing what is happening head on. It speaks to the depth of their relationship.
Don, now in his 60s, lives alone in the house that they shared together and seems as connected to Chris’s memory as he ever was. He rides his bike around Santa Monica and takes his elderly brother to the movies now and then. He sleeps in a day bed in Chris’s old office in their home and stares up at the stars at night. Chris is still alive to him.