Movie Review: 'Chris & Don: A Love Story'

Film looks back on an eyebrow-raising romance

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They look like father and son. A 30-year difference will do that.

But the men in "Chris & Don: A Love Story" are not parent and child but a couple whose love survived improbability, homophobia, time, temptation, illness and disparities in age, class, country and fame.

Chris was British-born writer Christopher Isherwood, whose stories about pre-World War II Berlin inspired "Cabaret," the stage musical and movie. To the manor born, Isherwood had a widening circle of friends that included the likes of W.H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky and Tennessee Williams.

Don is Don Bachardy, a Southern California native who was mad for the movies like his mother and starstruck older brother and who met Isherwood on the beach in 1952. Bachardy was in his late teens when they started a relationship that lasted until Isherwood died of cancer in 1986.

'Chris & Don: A Love Story'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Rating: Not rated but contains partial nudity, talk about drug use and other adult references.
  • Web

"Chris & Don" tells their story through interviews with Bachardy and others such as actors Leslie Caron, Liza Minnelli and Jack Larson along with director John Boorman, passages from Isherwood's published diaries read by Michael York, home movies, paintings, photos, correspondence, whimsical animation and, in small but unwelcome doses, some re-creations.

Bachardy was 21 to Isherwood's 51 when they took their first shared trip to Europe. After a year together, Bachardy adopted an English accent, unconsciously imitating his partner and mentor. It was only after he began to study and excel at portrait painting that he stepped out of Isherwood's shadow.

Several things make "Chris & Don" compelling, starting with Bachardy, an especially likable, vigorous 74-year-old who eliminates any thoughts (and I had plenty early on) that Isherwood took shameless advantage of him in the '50s.

Add to that the romance that raised eyebrows but proved long-lasting; the portrait of Isherwood that tracks him from his native England to Germany to the States; the seductive Hollywood backdrop that starts with Don and his brother, Ted, along the velvet ropes and leads to Don painting portraits of Montgomery Clift, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and others; and the enduring bond between Don and Ted, who struggled with manic-depression and schizophrenia since boyhood.

"Chris & Don," directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, is meant to be a valentine to the couple. It is, but at the expense of soft-pedaling the reaction of Bachardy's father, who forbade him from mentioning Isherwood when he came to dinner.

"I should never have agreed to such a restriction. How dare they!" Bachardy says, with a rare bubble of outrage. A flash of anger also surfaces at insults Joseph Cotten flung his way at a party.

For the most part, though, Bachardy is revealing but discreet, especially in talking about a time when he considered splitting from Isherwood. In the end, they stayed together and Bachardy nursed and painted Isherwood in his declining days, becoming a sort of camera himself.

For much of their time together, though, life was a cabaret and they heard the music play as old, compatible and very loving chums.

Opens Saturday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632.


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