Chris and Don. A Love Story (2007, Directors: Tina Mascara and Guido Santi): Don Bachardy was just 16 when he met Christopher Isherwood on a gay beach in Southern California. Prudently, Isherwood waited until Don was 18 before making his move. That is, if a 48-year-old man picking up a teenager can ever be considered prudent. Despite a 30-year age difference, Don and Chris built a lasting relationship that continued until Isherwood’s death (at the age of 82) in 1986. Based mostly on interviews with Bachardy, now in his 70s, Chris and Don is a sweet remembrance of a unique relationship, but as a film, I found it a bit flat.
I knew before seeing it that I’d be comparing it with Bob and Jack’s 52-Year Adventure, which explored similar territory, but with the benefit of having both parties alive to tell each side of the story. Sweet as Don’s remembrances of Chris might be, there’s not much drama there. Talking about a well-loved spouse who’s been gone more than twenty years is bound to become an exercise tainted by nostalgia. Though there were a few bumps in the relationship, Don (or the directors) seemed to gloss over them.
Perhaps most uncomfortable for me was the vast difference in their ages, as well as the fact that Isherwood was a well-known writer while Don was an admitted celebrity-seeker. Both men sought things in their relationship which are generally best found outside of a romantic entanglement. The number of times the father-son dynamic was mentioned was remarkable, and yet the directors didn’t dig very deeply into what could have been disturbing territory. Isherwood found in Bachardy the son he never had, as well as the youth he had lost. In return, Bachardy found a replacement for his disapproving father, as well as a teacher and someone who could introduce him to other famous people. There is a moment when Don recalls his frustration at being completely formed by Isherwood, and I’d have been curious to see more of that, especially since he now seems to have completely made peace with the fact that everything he has achieved in his life (he is an accomplished portrait painter) has been under the patronage of his husband.
Technically, the film is solid but unadventurous, although it does attempt some whimsy by animating images Isherwood drew of his pet names for himself (an old horse) and Bachardy (a cat). I found the animations crudely executed, though my wife thought they were cute.
Overall, then, it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity to me. I can understand the directors’ reticence since they had such great access to Bachardy, but I think some tougher questions could have made the film stronger.