Christopher Isherwood was a literary rock star with a taste for booze, much younger men and both spiritual and sexual experimentation. He palled around with thinkers like E. M. Forster and Aldous Huxley and turned his exploits into a string of semi-fictionalized novels, essays and plays. His best known work remains a collection of short stories called Goodbye to Berlin, which provided the basis for the Oscar winning movie Cabaret.
This weekend, forty-five years after it was first published, another of his books, A Single Man, hits the big screen. Directed by former fashionista Tom Ford it stars Colin Firth as George, a gay English professor contemplating suicide after the sudden death of his longtime lover.
“The gay aspect of A Single Man certainly wasn’t what drew me to make the film,” said Ford. “It was its human aspect, that unifying quality.”
That human characteristic is the thing that makes Isherwood’s best work so timely and, conversely, timeless. The work of his that translated best to the screen told stories that were specific in their setting, but universal in their themes.
Cabaret, for instance, was set in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Pre-Hitler Germany and features a healthy dose of decadence and perversion, but underneath the shiny surface is a sense of desperation. Roger Ebert wrote, “the context of Germany on the eve of the Nazi ascent to power makes the entire musical into an unforgettable cry of despair.” The setting and people may be unfamiliar, but the fear of the unknown is the universal element.
Less known is Isherwood’s script for The Loved One, (co-written with Dr. Strangelove scribe Terry Southern). It is a devastating satire on the funeral business which was advertised with the tagline “The motion picture with something to offend everyone!” The movie was a little too mean spirited for audiences in 1965, but has since gained a cult following among fans of dark humor. Sharp eyed viewers will also spy Isherwood as a mourner in the funeral scene.
A more up close and personal look at Isherwood can be found in Chris & Don: A Love Story a 2008 documentary chronicling the thirty year relationship between Isherwood, his much younger lover, artist Don Bachardy and their struggles as one of the first openly gay couples in Hollywood.
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