Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 14, 2008 7:25 am 
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[Tima Mascara, Guido Santi: Chris and Don: A Love Story.]


Moving out from under the shadow

Calvin A. Tripp in his book The Homoxexual Matrix says studies show gay couples are better than others at spanning differences. This well-made and touching documentary certainly shows that. When Christopher Isherwood met Don Bachardy he was 46 and Don was 16; he was a famous writer and Don was unknown and unformed; he was from the English landed gentry and Don's father was a worker in the aerospace industry. They met through Ted, Don's older brother, also gay--on the "queer" beach of Santa Monica. Chris slept with Ted. Two years later in 1951 he slept with Don. They bonded for life. They stayed together till Isherwood's death 34 years later. As director John Boorman says, "Of all the people I came to know in Los Angeles, their marriage was the only one that endured." People said it wouldn't. They were wrong. In the Fifties, they went out as an openly gay couple--which even the sophisticates of Hollywood where Chris was by then a successful writer weren't used to--because they were committed to each other, and Christopher Isherwood recognized the importance of not hiding their sexuality or their love.

Isherwood was partly a father to Don, who needed to discover who he was. In the course of this process Don very early on adapted Chris's ways of speaking and mannerisms--so completely that Boorman felt as if Chris had "cloned" himself. Then when Don's artistic talent emerged Chris sent him to art school, where he was a dedicated and successful student, and gave him the support and encouragement he needed. Perhaps as some say Don's subsequent success as a portrait artist was "why" the relationship endured--certainly it is how Don moved out from under Chris's shadow--but in fact the relationship was hard in its early years because Don was looked down on as nothing but Chris's boy toy, a blank. Then when Don realized all the wild oats Chris had sown in those extra thirty years, he revolted and there was a rough patch when Don threatened to go off with somebody else.

During this time Isherwood went north for three months as a guest lecturer, which led Don to realize how important his older lover was to him and how relatively unimportant the new person was.

Chris and Don: A Love Story is a marvel of seamless and thorough construction that fills us in on Isherwood's story before Don, his family and school origins, Berlin and the Cabaret/I Am a Camera years, his involvement in Hollywood society (Aldous Huxley, Swami Prabhavananda, Stravinsky, et al.). Likewise Don's life before Chris and after, including an ugly homophobic encounter with Joseph Cotton for Don. Note: Don says Cotton would not have dared make his slurs about "half-men" at that party within earshot of Chris. There are important perspectives from Boorman, Leslie Caron, briefly by Lisa Minelli (Chris found her Sally Bowles too "professional" but was glad the film was popular), and others. There are useful comments by Isherwood archive-keepers and chroniclers, home photos of Don and Chris in early days together, archival film interviews with Chris, Isherwood diaries read aloud by Michael York, and above all plenty of time spent with Don as he is today, a trim and vigorous 74, puttering around the sunny, pretty hillside house where he's lived since he moved there with Chris in the 1950's, painting handsome nude men; working out at the gym, reminiscing about his thirty-four years with Christopher Isherwood.

It's enough to see how Bachardy's eyes still light up when he tells about his first meeting with Chris, how often he laughs remembering things, to know theirs was a happy and enduring love. During the last days when Isherwood was dying of prostate cancer, Don did as many as nine or ten big drawings of him a day, and then drew his corpse. Chris would have said that was what an artist would do, Don says. "And that is what an artist did do." When Chris died, Don set about reading Chris's diaries, starting from the present and working back. He couldn't wait to get to the moment when they met.

There are many interesting details. An important theme is Don's and his family's early fascination with movies and movie stars and how Chris's many acquaintances in the world of movies fed into that and dazzled him--till reality came in when he discovered at a shoot where he was a humiliated extra, that a certain Italian lady star...farted, like anybody else, and definitely realized that movie acting wasn't an option for him. It's clear that over two decades since Chris's death, Don still thrives--but not all questions about his present life are answered (who does he hang out with?). Also missing is any sign of Chris's longtime friend Julie Harris. There is a visit with Ted, aging and sadly, a lifelong sufferer from mental problems.

There are a couple of unnecessary things: murky reenactments of scenes such as the one where Don and Chris huddled in Morocco during a bad trip after meeting Paul Bowles in Tangiers--a description of any of these dramatizations would have been enough; and as has been noted by others, the animations of the pair's kitty/pony drawings representing themselves are a little too cute. Still, this is a handsome as well as a touching piece of work.

Seen at Quad Cinema New York City June 13, 2008.

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