Christopher Isherwood was 48 when he met Don Bachardy in California in 1952. The writer, famous for his Berlin novels (adapted into Cabaret) was aristocratic and worldly, whereas Bachardy was just 18, a working-class ingenue with an open smile and an ass to match. Even Bachardy admits he was probably intended as a gift to the writer, but what should have been a one-night stand lasted until Isherwoods death in 1986. The relationship, depicted in Guido Santi and Tina Mascaras new documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story, caused some scandal in Isherwoods elite circle of writers, artists, and Hollywood figures. The pair were openly gay at a time when the celluloid closet was even more tightly shut than now, and then there was the age difference, which lent Bachardy the appearance of a kept companion. But most shocking was the degree to which Bachardy allowed himself to be remade by Isherwood, adopting his clothing and mannerisms and even his accent. One wishes Guy Ritchie had been half as successful at teaching Madonna how to speak.
In addition to home movies and Isherwoods diaries (narrated, in a nice touch, by Cabarets Michael York), the film relies mainly on Bachardy to tell us how the relationship unfolded in the face of such adversity. He doesnt mention what sort of models -- heterosexual or homosexual -- the pair looked to as they built their life together, but the educational and edifying pursuits he describes reminds one more of a salutary Victorian marriage between a middle-aged man and a young girl than a 20th-century love match. Yet it clearly was love, tinged by paternalism on Isherwoods part and hero worship on Bachardys, but no less erotic and sustaining for that. In both the home movies and his contemporary interviews, Bachardys eyes light up when he looks at or talks about Isherwood, and he makes it clear that he was having the time of his life. There were strains too, largely centered around their different ages and stations, and to defuse these the pair sometimes drew cartoons of an old, tired Horse and a rambunctious Pussy, in which they apologized for some bit of curmudgeonliness on the part of the former or mischief on the latter (the filmmakers animate a few of these in vignettes that are simultaneously goofy and touching). Though the elder man was a talentless draftsman, by the early 60s the younger man had a thriving career as a portraitist, drawing everyone from W.H. Auden to Katharine Hepburn.
At some point the pair negotiated an open relationship, but they were in some sense always together, not out of habit or duty or fear but because they had invented a relationship that worked for them. And though Bachardy was relatively young when Isherwood died (and remains in vibrant good health now at age 74), he seems never to have taken another
Another what? Lover? Husband? Life partner? Whatever term you prefer, the relationship still seems remarkable and singular -- all the more so for the fact that the two men seem to have pulled it from thin air. The life they built has more than a little to teach gay men and lesbians today, who are still struggling to define their own relationships. Indeed, same-sex marriage -- or civil union, or domestic partnership, depending upon how you conceive of the issue has become gay rights most consistent and controversial cause clbre. Like the struggles that culminated in dont ask, dont tell and Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down antisodomy laws across the country, the concept of gay marriage is almost always framed as a question of equal rather than civil rights. We simply point out the obvious: If heterosexuals are allowed to do it, homosexuals should be allowed to as well. It comes as no surprise, then, that on the question of gay marriage you almost never find anyone asking why love -- the highest of the physical pursuits, the most primal of the intellectual ones -- requires the legal (and financial) blessing of the state. But as we slip and slide down the long slope toward heteronormativity, Chris & Don is a timely reminder that its worth asking what a gay marriage might look like, even if we refuse to ask why we need such an institution.
Among the most moving of Bachardys drawings is the series of sketches he did of Isherwood as the 81-year-old writer lay dying of cancer. In the candor and trust with which Isherwood regards his lover, we are reminded of something we might have forgotten in our struggle to achieve legal recognition for our relationships, namely, that the hard work of a relationship isnt getting married but staying married.