Christopher Isherwood wrote ‘Berlin Stories’, which led to ‘Cabaret’ where Liza Minnelli rewrote the role of Sally Bowles and, according to Isherwood, undermined it, but no matter because without her how many of us would have heard of it or him or carried away that delicious and chilling impression of Weimar Germany? After leaving Germany for obvious reasons, Isherwood resettled in Hollywood where at age 50 he met a barely legal, supple and succulent teenager (Don Bachardy) on the beach and later moved him in to his Santa Monica house. They lived together for over 30 years until Isherwood’s death from prostate cancer.
The film ‘Chris and Don’ is a sensitive, critical look at their relationship and doesn’t shrink back from some uneasy-making questions, such as why the California-born younger man (who must now be hailing 80) not only inherited Isherwood’s English accent but his entire speech pattern and gesture-cabinet. The narration probes the evident father-son/Pygmalion overtones of the relationship and airs the view that Isherwood in some way cloned himself onto Bacchardi while at the same time enabling him to become an accomplished portrait artist.
Although the film doesn’t answer all its own questions, the overwhelming impression it leaves is of two devoted lovers whose intense connection gave them considerable courage at a time when gay couples, let alone one with this set of luggage, faced enormous social prejudices.
In less skilled hands the film’s sentimental flourishes would be saccharine and suspect. Instead, it probes the complexity of their time together and the difficult dynamics that inevitably arose from such an improbable juxtaposition. We endorse the romance and even permit Isherwood to wink at us from the afterlife.