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.
Tom Ford, ex-designer for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, founder of his own eponymous menswear line, makes his debut as a director with “A Single Man,” an adaptation of the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, and, as you might have guessed given his pedigree, this is a great looking film. The former fashionista hasn’t art directed it with Joel Schumacher style bombast, but with elegant good taste. He has steeped the film in beautiful people, places and things. Even an off camera voice over is done by Jon Hamm, who “People” called one of the “sexiest men of the year.” But don’t think “A Single Man” is all style and no substance. Ford paid attention to the pictures, but like another film sensualist, Pedro Almodovar, he also got the emotion of the piece right.
Set in early-’60s Los Angeles, “A Single Man,” is a slice of gay English professor George’s (Colin Firth) life. “I’m having a serious day,” he says on a smoggy LA afternoon as he makes preparations for his suicide following the sudden death of his longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode). As he meticulously tidies up the odds and ends of his life he takes time to have dinner with Charlotte (Julianne Moore), an old friend and chat with a curious student.
“A Single Man” is a study of grief. Ford portrays the scale of George’s loss through carefully rendered flashbacks and dream sequences, alternating between a cold color pallet for the post-Jim scenes and vibrant, lively hues for when he was still alive. It’s an old trick, but the subdued look of George’s sad life packs an emotional wallop. This is a man who, after losing his love and not being allowed to go to the funeral—it’s for “family only” he’s told—has lost the will to live. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I can’t see my future.” His outlook is as murky and grey as the film stock.
Firth oozes repression and sadness as George. He’s low key, a shadow of the man George was before Jim’s death, but Firth adds small details that add color to his character. When he spots a dog like the one he used to share with Jim the random sense memory catapults him back to a different place and time, a happier place and time. Firth and the film do a good job at portraying the small things that keep the memory of a lost loved one alive.
“A Single Man” isn’t a feel good movie, it’s an art house picture about loss and sadness, but as one character says, “Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty.”