The celebrated career of English literary giant Christopher Isherwood — perhaps best known for his monumental Berlin Stories, source material for the beloved musical Cabaret — would cast a huge shadow over anyone in his orbit. Yet Don Bachardy, who, despite being more than 30 years junior to Isherwood, was partnered with the legendary writer from not long after their meeting on Valentine’s Day 1953 until the writer’s death in 1986, established his own unique place in the artistic firmament.
The 76-year-old Santa Monica, Calif., resident is a much in-demand and respected portraitist and writer in his own right. Besides painting thousands of portraits of politicians, film stars, and sundry everyday people who have sparked his interest, Bachardy also collaborated with Isherwood on television films (1973’s Frankenstein: The True Story has a cult following) and Broadway dramatizations (a short-running production of Isherwood's novel A Meeting by the River) as well as writing the 2000 tome Stars in My Eyes, which offered reflections on some of his more notable sittings. In one of Isherwood’s memoirs, Christopher and His Kind, Bachardy is described as “the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not what you pretend to be.” Their storied love affair has already been the subject of a 2008 documentary, Chris and Don, and a temporary breakup between the two inspired Isherwood to write his 1964 classic A Single Man, famously made into an acclaimed film last year by fashion designer turned director Tom Ford.
Bachardy speaks with The Advocate to discuss Ford’s film version of A Single Man (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), his prolific painting career, and his most vivid memory of life with Isherwood.
The Advocate: How many times have you seen A Single Man now?
Don Bachardy: I’ve seen it three times now, and if anything, it gets better. That’s the real test of a movie — to see it more than once.
What was your opinion the first time you watched it, when you saw Christopher’s great novel come to life?
Well, of course, I met with Tom Ford several times. I like him. I watched the filming. As enthusiastic as I was about him and the questions he asked, his intelligence, I was still very, very nervous at that first screening he invited me to because I knew him and liked him well enough, but I knew I couldn’t lie to him. I wouldn’t want to lie to him, and it wouldn’t be easy to tell him that I didn’t like it. It was just an enormous relief to me to be not only genuinely enthusiastic about the film but really to like it.
Tom made a few changes to the story when he adapted the novel. How did you feel about that?
I told him when he was beginning the project, once it was settled and he was really going to make it, I told him what Chris told writers who were adapting his novels to screenplays. He told them to make it their own because the mediums are so different — writing and filmmaking, novels and movies. It was hard to copy the novel; you’re bound to get in trouble. So Chris encouraged them to make movies about what the material meant to them personally, and I think that’s what Tom did and that’s why I think the film is so successful. You really feel when you’re watching it that he really minds about the material, he’s really involved in it emotionally, and I think that’s what makes the film work.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the de-gaying of the advertising campaign, that it gave the impression the film is a romance between Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. What were your thoughts on that?
I’m not in advertising, but I can understand that they didn’t want to suggest that it was a movie with a queer theme and perhaps maybe only suitable for a queer audience. That would be a great pity as well as a mistake because so many people who were most affected were my heterosexual friends, even more than my queer friends. If the campaign had made it clearer that it was a story about male love for other males, then that would have maybe shut a lot of the people out. That would have been too bad, I think. I can understand that, and a little bit of surprise for an audience really can’t hurt them.
I met the actor [Dr. Who’s Matt Smith] who’s playing Isherwood, a very nice very intelligent young man. He’s not at all like Chris — he’s tall and willowy, he’s fair, but he’s charming and very bright. I like him a lot. I loaned him an item that is mentioned in Christopher and His Kind. It’s a brass dolphin clock that is described in Goodbye to Berlin. When he came to the house I showed him the clock, and he said he thought the director would be delighted to have that as a kind of luminous object for the film. He took it off to England with him, and it’s going to be in the film.
You mentioned that Christopher told filmmakers and screenwriters to make his work their own, but I’ve read that he wasn’t pleased with Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret. Is this true?
Fosse really did make it his own, didn’t he? One of Chris’s objections to the movie was that he felt that the character Sally Bowles went out the window. As soon as we saw her performing in the Kit Kat Club, obviously she was a total professional. And if Sally Bowles isn’t an amateur, she isn’t Sally Bowles. You can’t have it both ways. There was Liza Minnelli belting. She would have been the toast of Europe, and Sally Bowles was a klutz as a singer. Naturally he felt his characters had been warped out of all recognition, especially in the stage version of Cabaret — the Isherwood character is turned into a heterosexual. That’s going beyond making the material your own. That’s really transforming it.
Are there other novels or works by Christopher that you think would make really dynamic films?
Oh, yes. He always thought a novel of his called The World in the Evening would make a much better film than it was a book. I agree with him. I think it has enormous possibilities as a film, and a very visual film with lots of strong of characters. Also, one of Chris’s finest books would make a perfect film. That’s the book about movie-making called Prater Violet. Many people have had the idea of turning it into a film, but so far it hasn’t been done. I saw a play adaptation of it in New York about eight or nine years ago that I thought was absolutely brilliant. When I read the play version, written by the man who directed it, I said to myself, Well, this isn’t a play. He’s copied the book! Then I went to see the production, and I realized that the book is written to be performed. That’s what was magical onstage. I think you could do that in a film too.
What is a typical day like for you now?
A typical day for me, and a successful one from my point of view, is a day that includes several hours of work in my studio. I’ve always been a prolific artist. I’m quite used to working seven days a week. When I’m doing sittings with people, all of my pictures of people are done from life, so I usually have a sitter at 12:30 in the afternoon and I’m liable to be working through the afternoon and sometimes into the evening — as long as my sitter lasts. I’m used to doing that, often seven days a week.
So you have a different sitter every day of the week?
How many paintings do you generate from a sitting?
Three is pretty much my minimum. Lately I’ve been doing two just because I think I’m older now, I don’t have the energy I used to have. I have a lot for my age, but also I’ve been doing it for more than 50 years, so it doesn’t take me as long to warm up as it used to.
What do you do with the paintings? Do you sell them? Do you store them?
Both. I have a studio full of them. I’ve had many, many exhibitions, and I always choose from what I think are the best of the most current works that I’ve been doing. I have a lot of work to choose from. Now I have more than 50 years of archives, so if I never did another day’s work, I’d have enough work for dozens of shows.
Christopher’s papers and manuscripts are stored at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Do you ever go up there to visit his things?
Indeed I do. I know the people there very well. It’s a great group of people and I’m so delighted they want my work and papers, too. It’s going to be a double collection, and I’m very pleased about that.
Have you read all of Christopher’s novels?
Oh, of course. Many times.
Do you have a favorite?
Yes. I agree with him. His favorite was A Single Man, and it’s my favorite too. Prater Violet is very close behind, and I think Christopher and His Kind is one of his very best. The last book he published, My Guru and His Disciple, is like no other book. It really is unique.
Do you have a most cherished memory of him or of the two of you together?
Well, very, very vivid are the last six months of his life because I gave up all my other sitters. Instead of working every day in my studio with a sitter, I was working with Chris. I worked with him almost every day those last six months. We were alone together in my studio and then, as he got sicker, I moved into the house to work. Finally, I was in the bedroom with him lying in the bed, and it was my way of spending as much time with him as I could. When I’m working, I’m looking intensely at my sitter, and by looking at him as intensely as I do when I work, I was able to share the experience of dying. I began to see that it was something that we were doing together. That is certainly just about as vivid a memory of him I have. It is really indelibly impressed in my mind.