Perhaps best known as the inspiration and co-author of the musical “Cabaret,” Christopher Isherwood was a beloved writer and critical fixture of the gay scene in Hollywood, proudly living his dream of artistic and sexual freedom. However, there was a force in his life more powerful than writing, even breathing at times: Don Bachardy.
“Chris & Don” recounts the romance between the two men, following their lives and a relationship only separated by an intimidating divide in age. With a 30-year difference in birthdates, the lovers embarked on a bond that grew to test their patience, yet opened up their diverse lives in remarkable ways, planting seeds of creative growth that would come to define both men and tighten a bond that lasts to this very day, 22 years after Chris’s death.
Directed by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi (who sound more like a Vegas magic act), “Chris & Don” is bathed in warm waters of affection, advancing on this love story with an ear for endearment, not judgmental deconstruction. Leading with interviews and footage with the 72-year-old Don, the documentary comes to the screen craving to celebrate this gay couple and the unexpected life they enjoyed together as the men rubbed elbows with Hollywood elite. It’s a sentimental and loving picture, playing out as a leisurely cocktail-hour stroll through an enchanting life.
Meeting on a beach in the 1950s, Chris became fixated with Don and his luxuries of youth and inexperience. Only a teenager, Don was ushered into a world of celebrities, sexual comfort, and an unusual love affair with a man who alternated between romantic adoration and fatherly pride. The ups and downs of their time together are recalled through home movies, Chris’s diary excerpts (read with minty fondness by Michael York), and interviews with such friends and witnesses as John Boorman, Leslie Caron, and Liza Minnelli. The pieces add up to an involving whole: observing Don relive his affair from a place of reflection, played out in media clips, parading around a strange-looking pair who fed off each other’s comfort, even to a point where communication was simplified (or detached) to that of cartoon animal personas, which the film recreates through adorable animation.
The road wasn’t always golden for Chris and Don, who experienced a few bumps when Don’s sexual appetites matured, but they hung in (nearly becoming twins in the process), with Chris solidifying his stature as a leading writer and Don indulging his artistic side, soon becoming a full-time painter with an impressive roster of celebrity models. As both men aged, their loved flourished, extending itself to Chris’s battle with prostate cancer, which was documented in a series of haunting sketches that Don still shows discomfort with decades after the passing.
Perhaps “Chris & Don” might’ve found a more concise home in an hour-long format, but the passion and lengthy history of the men remains captivating and enlightening, submitting a relationship that defied all the odds against it, and still reverberates to this day.