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Star crossed: Chris & Don: A Love Story 

Documentary offers a poignant story of liberation

When gay British writer Christopher Isherwood met Don Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach in the 1950s, Isherwood was 49 and Bachardy was 18, and though they were attracted to one another they faced the obstacles of their sexual orientation and their marked age difference.

But somehow their romance survived all that, and their relationship's evolution becomes a source of inspiration in the documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story. What may have started out as an infatuation grew to something much more important for both of them, as the filmmakers Guido Santi and Tina Mascara show without veering into the nostalgic or melodramatic.

The two lovers provided each other with various forms of sexual and artistic liberation. Isherwood earned fame in the 1940s with his Berlin Stories about the decadent pre-World War II days in the German city. Those writings served as the inspiration for the stage play I Am Camera, which in turn led to the Tony-winning Broadway musical Cabaret, which led to the subsequent Oscar-winning movie. By the time the two lovers met, Isherwood's literary reputation was already established, but their relationship helped inspire Isherwood to pen his late-career classic, Christopher and His Kind, where he became one of the first celebrities to write openly about his homosexuality.

By the same token, Bachardy grew from boy toy to an artist in his own right. As a teen, he and his brother were star-crossed celebrity gawkers who would crash movie-premiere events so they could be photographed next to Hollywood's elite. Isherwood knew this, and later introduced the young men to his many celebrity friends – many of whom wound up sitting for Bachardy to paint.

Over time, their relationship evolved. At one point, Bachardy sought the kind of sexual freedom that Isherwood had bragged about before meeting him, and the two took on their share of separate lovers. Bachardy even considered leaving Isherwood at one point.

But their bond – often communicated through fanciful love letters – kept them together, and they wound up collaborating on writing projects. Bachardy cared for Isherwood in later years, as the writer fought the prostrate cancer that would eventually kill him in 1986.

Bachardy proves an endearing subject. He speaks both wistfully and forthrightly about their years together. "He took this young boy and he warped him to his mold," Bachardy says of Isherwood. "He taught him all kinds of wicked things. It was exactly what the boy wanted. And he flourished."

The love notes between the two men often featured them as fictional characters – Don the cat, Chris the horse – and the filmmakers bring those characters to life through cute animated vignettes. In another nice twist, they employ Michael York – who played Isherwood's fictionalized character in Cabaret – to read from Isherwood's autobiographical writings. It recalls Johnny Depp reading Hunter S. Thompson's words in the recent documentary Gonzo. When Isherwood moved to Berlin, York speaks for the author, "I was looking for a sort of homeland," and the connection between writer and actor becomes complete.

Throw in loads of archival footage, recreated scenes and plenty of interviews from Isherwood scholars and personal friends, and Chris & Don becomes one of the more fully realized portraits of a famous couple in recent memory. There may be times when the film acts as a bit of a diary dump, but the 90-minute length never feels too drawn out.

Don Bachardy already knew their love lives on. Now the rest of us know it, too, and why.

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