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Don Bachardy: Perfect Portrait

chrisanddonThe Del Mar Theatre’s benefit screening of ‘Chris and Don’ delivers one of the year’s more illuminating documentaries
If there is one movie you must see this year to convince you of the incredible power of love, and how it can transform those captured by its magical prowess, it would have to be Chris and Don … a love story. The heartwarming documentary, which enjoyed a healthy run and critical praise within the film festival circuit, hits Santa Cruz on Sept. 11 with a special screening and fundraiser at the Del Mar Theatre for the Santa Cruz Cultural Council. This imaginative film chronicles the against-all-odds relationship between British writer Christopher Isherwood and portrait painter Don Bachardy, whose memorable works grace the halls of the Met and The Smithsonian. But Chris and Don (****) unveils a portrait of another kind. It seems to illuminate the unending depths love can take two people, and with vivid strokes of its artistic brush—so wonderfully executed by director Guido Santi—manages to convey the unlimited possibilities of what something real can offer. Isherwood was 30 years older than Bachardy when the two initially met in the early ’50s. But their age difference didn’t stall their romance. Isherwood and Bachardy were  partners for more than 30 years. It was Isherwood’s tome “Berlin Stories,” which became the impetus for the Oscar-winning film Cabaret. He died in 1986. Bachardy, now in his seventies and still painting, lives in the Malibu home the couple shared. GT recently caught up with the artist via phone for a spirited conversation.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN INTERESTING BEING INTERVIEWED FOR THE FILM, AN UNEARTHING OF EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS PERHAPS. HOW WAS THAT FOR YOU—LOOKING BACK?

I had grown fond of the filmmakers. Because I liked them, I was candid. I would never have talked as frankly and as intimately as I do in the film to people I didn’t know and like very much. They have become very close friends. [Pauses] Will you excuse me a moment? I realize I have something in the oven … Just a moment.

ABSOLUTELY.

[Ten seconds later] OK. Thank you.

NO PROBLEM. WHAT’S IN THE OVEN?

I eat lots of seeds and nuts and I am roasting lots of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds I got from the open market the other day.

SOUNDS GREAT.

It’s very tasty and very nourishing, yes.

WELL, YOU ARE VERY MUCH INTO FITNESS, AS THE DOCUMENTARY SHOWS US.

Yes. It’s easy to do when one lives alone. It’s much easier. I had much of a struggle to watch my weight when Chris was alive because we often ate out and cooked at home. With two people sharing a meal, it’s harder to diet.

IS IT TRUE THAT YOU ARE FOND OF SAYING YOU WERE A COMPLETE CREATION OF CHRISTOPHER’S? IS THAT ACCURATE?

Yes. I don’t want to sound ultra-modest. He had to have had pretty good clay … in the beginning. And I think that is what he was always hoping. Not only from a young man who had a suitor, but somebody who was paying very close attention and could take all the help that he was getting, and take it seriously enough to whip himself into shape. I think each of us was what the other was hoping for and looking for without fully knowing it. Maybe Chris knew it but I didn’t. I never thought of living with a man who was actually a year older than my father when I was 18. That was Chris’ interest and charm and encouragement and I responded wholeheartedly. In fact, it was I that proposed to him and not the other way around.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE SCENE?

Well, we were on our way to an early evening movie, The Importance of Being Earnest. It was 1953, and we were early for the movie and we were walking around the block talking. We had been gradually spending more and more time together. I was living in town and Chris was on the Westside of Brentwood and I told him that it would be much easier [for us to live together as partners]. I was surprised by Chris’ suddenly serious tone when I made the suggestion. He suddenly became almost solemn and I realized my proposal was having a much deeper effect than I imagined. I realized that when I said we should live together as partners that it did sound like a proposal and that he might have taken it that way. And then I thought, if he had, am I against that idea? And I said to myself: No. Maybe, without knowing it, it was what I intended. We went into the movie and Chris did not mention the subject again until the next day. He had come to the same conclusion I had—that if it was a proposal of partnership, why not? And so we went on from there.

NEWchrisanddonmore

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU LOVED MOST ABOUT CHRISTOPHER?

Oh. If you had known him, you would know instantly. He was so irresistibly charming. And it was irresistible because it was so modest and so personal. And he was ultra attentive. He paid full attention to me.  And as an 18-year-old, I never had attention. Even from my parents. I had never known what it was like to be considered a person of genuine fascination.

I UNDERSTAND THAT FEELING.

[Laughs] It was an instance of luxury. He was really invested in me. He told me I was very sophisticated for my age and of course, I loved hearing that. All kinds of people pretend to have all kinds of interest in someone than they really have. Chris’ interest was genuine. And through all the years we lived together, he never lost his curiosity. Again and again I saw that same curiosity to young men that came to the house to interview him or people we met in passing. Once he was interested in somebody, he turned on all of his charms. I observed him talking to near-catatonic specimens …

REALLY?

… People that were so suspicious of anybody who showed any curiosity and they would clam up instantly. And he could even pry those clams open.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHEN YOUR WORK BEGAN TO BLOSSOM?

When I met him, I had shown him drawings I had done and I have drawn all of my young life. By the time we met I had done some quite competent copies of magazine pictures, mostly of movie actors, and they were very accurate. And so Chris suggested why don’t you try working from live. I never had. He said if I would do it,  he would sit for me. My first drawing from live, was Chris. I had been used to copying every detail from a magazine photo, so I had applied that approach to Chris as my sitter—and he sat very still—and I suppose it took about an hour or so, and I put in everything I could see. And when I was finished, there was a moment of silence. I realize Chris was quite taken aback. It looked very much like him. Because of my innocence and lack of sophistication, I included everything. And after that moment of silence, he said, you know, it’s really quite good. It was two years of prodding from him: why don’t you try art school or classes and explore this obvious talent for drawing? I was scared, but he kept at me. Finally, I did take the plunge and signed up for a six-week art school here in L.A., scared to death. But in that first week in art school, it took immediately. I knew I had found my vocation. I was in my third year in college at UCLA and I quit UCLA and signed up for the art school full-time. And for the next four years … I was desperate to find my vocation. Not only because I wanted to express myself, but because I also knew that was the only way Chris and I could stay together—if I could find an identity for myself. He knew that, too.

WHAT WERE YOU FRIGHTENED OF?

Failure. You know, I was totally lacking in confidence. I never had any encouragement to be an artist from either of my parents. Believing in myself was very very tough—as it is for so many young people.

IT’S QUITE AN EXPERIENCE TO SEE YOUR WORK. I APPRECIATE WHAT I AM WITNESSING WHEN I SEE IT.

My secret is working from live. I can’t work any other way. I always have people sitting for me. And after more than 50 years of doing it, it’s still the most difficult challenge I can imagine.

DO YOU DO IT EVERY DAY; A MODEL POSES EVERY DAY FOR YOU?

Yes. Because it’s easier. People who could sit still—the stiller my sitter is, the more co-operation I get from him or her, the better I am likely to be. I always said I am only as good as my sitter, and when I find somebody who really collaborates with me … and for me, it’s the purest moment of collaboration I can think of—two people sitting face to face, often looking at each other right in the eye, sitting there for well over an hour. Imagine what goes on between two people in that situation. It’s like no other experience in life.

IT’S VERY INTIMATE.

Yes. It is. It is so intimate that even after all these years of doing it, I often find that I never tire of the experience itself. It’s never lost its shock-value for me … of looking—and somebody I’ve often just met—and suddenly we are locked into this very intimate experience. It still takes me aback.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT THAT PROCESS, ABOUT CREATING?

Losing myself in it so completely that I am not thinking about myself. That happens, at the very most, two or three times a year—when I can get into it so deeply I am not thinking about anything; that I get so caught up in the identification of myself and my sitter that we are like a single organism. There is no question of glory. No question of anxiety. I am just so deeply in it, that it is a form of the purest bliss that I can imagine. But, as I say, it is rare.

I UNDERSTAND THAT PARTICULAR FEELING WITH WRITING. AT CERTAIN TIMES YOU REACH THIS POINT WHERE YOU ARE IN THE PROPER ALIGNMENT, WHERE YOU ARE SO CAPABLE OF ALLOWING THE CREATIVE ENERGY TO MOVE THROUGH; WHERE YOU ARE YOUR MOST UNINHIBITED SELF.

Yes. And I can say to myself that I would rather be here and now, doing what I am doing, than anything else I can think of.

WHAT ARE YOU LOVING MOST ABOUT LIFE?

You know, age is really as stifling as people think it is. I feel a freedom that comes from age. And it is partially because I feel that I’ve had such a successful life; such a lucky life, that I feel that very lightness of not having very much to lose and that makes me very giddy sometimes.

WOULD YOU SAY TRUE LOVE IS EASY OR HARD TO FIND?

Oh, hard to find.

HARD OR EASY TO MAINTAIN?

Well, it takes an enormous effort. True love is hard to find because so much depends on how well one knows oneself. We think we know what we want when we say we are looking for true love but a lot of us don’t, and we don’t because we don’t know ourselves well enough.  To my surprise, at 18, was finding that I really wanted to be with this man that was 30 years older than I.

BEST ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN ABOUT LIFE?

I don’t think Chris ever gave me advice, but what he did give me was his example. He is still very much present in my life, and here I am sitting on his daybed, where I sleep now, with his desk in front of me. And, the watercolors on the walls and feeling very much at home, and I am linked to a place with him.

WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING THING YOU’VE LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF LATELY?

Oh, there are dissatisfactions with myself despite feeling most of the time how lucky my life has been. Despite finding myself in a good psychological state, I do find myself complaining far more than I have any right to complain. I feel there is an importance of a life experience to living into an older age, is to really get an in-depth experience to who one is with all of the faults and unattractive details. I try to shake myself out of the complaints and I am still trying to improve my character and that really is a daily process.


“Chris & Don … a love story” plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11 at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz.  Proceeds benefit the Cultural Council in support of the arts in Santa Cruz County. A reception precedes the film at 5:30 p.m. Admission is $20, which includes a reception and introduction by Carter Wilson, Professor Emeritus, UCSC, Novelist and Documentary Screenwriter. Visit ccscc.org or call  475-9600 x12.
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