A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood and the silver screen
With Tom Ford’s stylish adaptation of A Single Man tipped for Oscar glory, Allan Radcliffe looks into novelist Christopher Isherwood’s enduring relationship with the silver screen.
Think of Christopher Isherwood, and the first image that springs to mind is probably that of a bowler-hatted Liza Minnelli straddling an unsuspecting chair in Cabaret. It always feels like rough justice when a great author’s work is eclipsed by film adaptations, but in Isherwood’s case the association is fitting.
The Anglo-American novelist, playwright, translator, biographer and trailblazing gay rights activist had a long-standing association with the cinema. He carved out a parallel career as a Hollywood screenwriter on resettling in California in the late 1930s. His novel Prater Violet (1945) explores the notion of film-as-art through a group of characters making a movie in pre-World World II England. Indeed, Isherwood’s most famous opening line, from 1939’s Goodbye to Berlin, explicitly sets out the author’s view of the kinship between the writer and auteur filmmaker, squirreling away experiences for subsequent use: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’
Like an auteur director Isherwood never shied away from mining his own life experiences as a rich source of material for his writing. His visits to Berlin in the early 1930s inspired his most famous novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. The latter has been adapted twice for the silver screen. While Bob Fosse’s Cabaret scooped eight Oscars and made an international icon of Minnelli in the role of Sally Bowles, Kander and Ebb’s musical was itself inspired by John Van Druten’s theatre adaptation of Isherwood’s stories, I Am a Camera, which was made into a film starring Julie Harris as Sally Bowles and Laurence Harvey in the role of Isherwood.
But fans of these films may be surprised at how fragmented the original Berlin novels are, their loose, episodic structures having been pillaged and ironed out by Hollywood screenwriters. It’s also somewhat ironic that Isherwood’s work should have been so popular with filmmakers working within the conservative Hollywood system. Having brought elements of gay underground culture to mainstream attention in the Berlin novels, Isherwood’s later, autobiographical novels, The World in the Evening (1954) and A Single Man (1964) reflected his status as one of the few internationally renowned figures at that time to be openly gay.
Perhaps the most astonishing area of his personal life was his 33-year relationship with the portrait painter Don Bachardy, which began in 1953 when Bachardy was 18. The story of one of the first openly gay relationships in Hollywood was the inspiration for Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s moving 2007 documentary, Chris and Don: a Love Story.
It was precisely this unabashed gall regarding his sexuality, reflected in his characters, that attracted Tom Ford, director of the acclaimed new adaptation of A Single Man to Isherwood’s work.
‘One of the things I love is the way he depicted gay characters in just a simple, matter-of-fact way,’ Ford has said. ‘Their sexuality was never really an issue for the characters. Of course, most of his characters were autobiographical.’
From the fabulous, pathetic Sally Bowles, to effeminate rogue Mr Norris and repressed, despairing George in A Single Man, it’s Isherwood’s vividly observed and wittily drawn characters that stay in the mind, whether on the page or on the screen.
A Single Man is on general release from Fri 12 Feb.