Written by Alexandra Byer
Photographs by Britni Crocker
Originally published in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter, Nov. 20, 2008.
Last Friday night, Hopkins students, faculty and the Baltimore public filed into Hodson Hall for a special screening of the acclaimed documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story.
Though the exclusive screening, sponsored by the Film & Media Studies Program, was significant on its own, a question-and-answer session followed the film with not only the filmmakers but also one the documentary's central subjects - Don Bachardy.
The public was given the opportunity to ask filmmakers Tina Mascara and Guido Santi as well as Bachardy their questions, but Hopkins film students were given
the rare opportunity to have an intimate workshop with the trio on Saturday morning.
Mascara and Santi's Chris & Don: A Love Story follows the passionate, defiant 34-year-long relationship between the distinguished writer Christopher Isherwood and his lover, Don Bachardy. Isherwood, the prolific British author best known for The Berlin Stories (which became the musical Cabaret), was 48 when he met the 18 year-old Bachardy on a beach in Santa Monica. In the film, Bachardy recalls Isherwood as, "so friendly; he had such a charming smile and sparkling eyes. Eyes that had such energy, eyes that ate you up." And though Isherwood had a fling with Bachardy's brother prior, Bachardy and Isherwood soon fell in love.
During the 90-minute film, their love is portrayed so tangibly that the inevitable and known death of Isherwood is still heartrending. An agglomeration of home videos, old photographs, excerpts from Isherwood's diaries and Bachardy's commentary, the documentary is an in-depth look into the couple's life. Since Isherwood was a prominent person in Hollywood's social scene, the two were often seen with celebrities such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Igor Stravinsky, Anthony Perkins and Leslie Caron. Anecdotes surrounding Isherwood and Bachardy's interactions with these people and interviews with those icons who are still alive add dynamism to the documentary. But even within their seemingly perfect, happy relationship, the documentary captures many of their hardships as well, especially in the face of adversity.
Even for the relatively progressive group of friends they were in, being a gay couple in the 1960s and '70s was a hardship on its own. Even Isherwood's close friend, psychologist Evelyn Hooker who focused on homosexual relations, believed that the 30-year difference between the two men was extremely unhealthy. But Isherwood and Bachardy paid no attention to such prejudice and continued to live together blissfully. Nothing could shake their steadfast relationship. Even when famous actors (that were at one time Bachardy's idols), like Joseph Cotton, commented on his sexuality, Bachardy had the strength to ignore such judgments. This partnership was that of undeniable love and loyalty.
They were so much a part of each other that Bachardy, who was still developing as a man, began to take on many of Isherwood's characteristics, even adopting a British accent though he is from Southern California. Being somewhat in the shadow of Isherwood was another struggle he encountered, but eventually Bachardy began to make a name for himself, becoming more than simply Isherwood's boyfriend. Bachardy eventually went to art school and became a portrait artist, painting hundreds of portraits of Isherwood and many other celebrities. In archived footage, Isherwood raves about how proud he was of Bachardy, how happy he was to see him succeed. And many of Bachardy's portraits are shown throughout the film. It is this type of footage that truly exemplified their relationship.
Other relics of their romance were the letters and cartoons written to one another that included their secret characters, “Kitty” and “Dobbin,” which respectively reflected Bachardy and Isherwood. These small drawings were made into short animated sequences that portrayed their love in yet another way - the way the couple privately viewed themselves. Though the film faced a problem of being overly immersed with solely Isherwood, Bachardy or just their work, it overcomes such troubles by intertwining each of their stories evenly. Bachardy's remarks are equally balanced by Michael York's reading of Isherwood's diaries.
Chris & Don is a beautiful tale of the love that Hollywood tries to imitate in many of its narrative films. But instead of making it up, Mascara and Santi resurrect a relationship, showing it in its true form. Chris & Don is a reminder that true unyielding love does exist, against all inequality, change and even death.
After the film's presentation, Bachardy, Mascara and Santi took to the front of the lecture hall to answer questions. They were immediately met with a standing ovation. The experience of seeing the filmmakers in the flesh was remarkable, and it seemed as though Bachardy simply walked off the screen that he had been projected on only moments before. The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions, many of which were directed to Bachardy. He was asked about his artwork, his role in the documentary's production and his relationship with Isherwood. Members of Baltimore's GLBT community who were in attendance applauded Mascara and Santi for making a film that so beautifully depicts a homosexual relationship.
"I am so grateful to all of you for bringing this beautiful story to film. There is so little celebration of gay love in our society, and I truly appreciate it," one woman commented. Another asked Bachardy what his thoughts on the gay marriage controversy in California are. To this, Bachardy replied vehemently: "Of course we should have the right to marry each other if we want to. On what possible firm basis can we be denied? It's sheer bigotry. And also, it's un-American . . . What possible valid reason against it can there be?" He also commented, though, that if it were available to him and Isherwood at the time, they would never have gotten married because what really mattered was "our devotion to each other; no one else had to sanction it."
Bachardy spoke about what Isherwood's death meant to him and what that moment was like. He commented that though it was one of the hardest times for him, he had made up his mind at 18 that he would always take care of Isherwood, and so that's what he did. Bachardy spoke even further about his never-ending love for Isherwood and when asked if he had any other great loves, he simply laughed and responded that none had been so great. Though Bachardy was primarily the topic of interest during the question-and-answer section, the next morning, about a dozen film majors had the chance to meet with the trio again, this time engaging Mascara and Santi in most of the conversation.
In a casual environment over danishes and coffee, Hopkins students asked Santi and Mascara about their experiences in filmmaking. Most of the questions pertained to the actual production of Chris & Don: how they filmed it, how they raised money for it and what the hardest and most rewarding parts were. The filmmakers delved into the construction of the documentary, explaining how they tied together the different media, the editing and even just the sheer luck they had in having the opportunity to make the film.
Santi and Mascara spoke about their own backgrounds in film as well. Santi grew up in Italy, worked on many short films and later graduated from the University of Southern California with a Master's degree in Film Production. Mascara, from West Virginia, attended the film program at Los Angeles City College. Her background was in photography, but applying her love of film, she channeled that knowledge into making films.
After telling their own stories, the filmmakers were curious about the students interests and goals. Each student had the opportunity to share his or her pursuits and hopes for the future. Santi told them that finding their passion is the most important part, because though one can focus on success, if one is not passionate, then it doesn't matter: "It's not about success, it's about personal expression ... Success comes if you hit the right spot."
Mascara added that she realized through working on this documentary with Bachardy that "having that vocation, finding that thing in life that is something you love to do, and whether the success comes or not, it's a reason to wake up in the morning." They explained that the whole process of life and film is learning, that they too are still learning about themselves and their art forms. But the filmmakers stressed that everyone has the capability to go out and film whatever they want and learn from that because, especially today, so much technology is readily available.
The events throughout the weekend surrounding Chris & Don were exciting for everyone involved. Students were given an amazing opportunity from which they were able to not only see an incredible film but also gain insight on it from the direct source itself. And even many Baltimoreans were able to be part of this once in a lifetime occasion.
Though the production of film was important to the workshop, the idea of finding one's own path was really the underlying message. Finding one's passion, whether it is filmmaking, painting or writing, is one of the most important parts of life, and this was emphasized by Santi, Mascara and Bachardy equally. As Santi said, "Once you find your own vocation, you will be on the highway, you will be there."