A singular film

Film review

Colin Firth plays the character of the tortured gay English professor George Falconer in the film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s somewhat autobiographical novel A Single Man.

I love gay men’s history.

Call me a geek, but I’ve long believed that it’s difficult to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, especially as a member of a historically oppressed minority group, and so I eat up gay history.

As a college student in a red state in the mid- to late 1980s, I had to remain closeted or risk harassment, perhaps even to the point that remaining at my university might have been made impossible — and further, the newish AIDS crisis was on and there still was some hysteria as to how easily AIDS was transmitted from person to person, so not only was same-sex sex was ruined for me, but there was the further social stigma that Gay meant Dying of the New (Gay) Plague. As if being hated for not being attracted to the opposite sex weren’t bad enough, gay men were the New Lepers.

While the pre-AIDS generations of gay men got to have their sexual romps (the unfortunate price of which many if not most of them paid later), the closet was even rougher for them than it was for me; for them, consensual homosexual relations meant possible arrest and even incarceration for “sex crimes” and a life ruined.

Among my gay-rights heroes are Harry Hay (I recently watched a DVD biography on Hay titled “Hope Along the Wind,” which, among other things, chronicles the high degree of secrecy in which the early gay-rights groups had to meet in the paranoid 1950s, and the nexus between homosexuality and Communism created by the wingnutty McCarthyites); Harvey Milk, of course (whom I lovingly regard as “St. Harvey”); and Christopher Isherwood, who, like Hay, was born in England but eventually found himself in California to, in his own way, mostly through his writing, advance gay rights.

Now has come the film version of what many critics consider to be Isherwood’s best novel, A Single Man, in which the main character, George Falconer, bears striking resemblances to Isherwood.

In “A Single Man,” directed and co-written by Tom Ford, George (played wonderfully by Colin Firth, who also played an interesting gay character in the quirky queer-themed 1989 thriller “Apartment Zero”) is an English professor living in Los Angeles of the early 1960s, a place where it was easier to be gay in the United States than in most other places in the nation at the time, but a time when it still wasn’t OK to the vast majority of Americans for anyone to be gay anywhere.

George has just lost his younger mate, Jim, to a car accident after their 16-year relationship, and George struggles to continue with his life.

I imagine that in that day and age it was difficult to find a same-sex mate at all, so to lose one with whom you’d really bonded would have been devastating.

And indeed, George is devastated, which “A Single Man” chronicles.

George’s main emotional support comes from his female friend and neighbor, Charley, a fellow Londoner who came to Los Angeles to pursue a dream that eluded her also. Charley is an alcoholic and so she can be only so supportive of George, and further complicating their friendship, Charley still wishes that she and Charley had become a married couple before their lives went in different directions.

Poignant scenes in “A Single Man” abound: The flashbacks between George and his deceased partner Jim (played quite charmingly by Matthew Goode); the scene in which George is informed by Jim’s relative that Jim’s funeral is for “family” only; the uncomfortable scene in which Charley, apparently not really thinking, denigrates the years-long relationship that George and Jim had had as something rather frivolous and not very serious; the scene in which George is propositioned by an apparent hustler who exudes sex appeal (and who actually seems like good relationship material, not just a hustler); the scene in which George indirectly brings up homosexuality in his English class and his closeted-by-necessity gay male students squirm in their seats. Perhaps no scene is better than the one in which George’s suicide attempt is bungled by his own anal retentiveness.

Providing a story to go along with the scenes of George’s dreary life of an aging, closeted widow(er) is the hot pursuit of George by one of students, the earnest, young and gay Kenny, played by a doe-eyed, angora-sweater-wearing Nicholas Hoult, probably best known for having played the fatherless little boy chasing after the single ladies’ man Hugh Grant in 2002’s “About a Boy.” I find it funny that Hoult has played two roles now in which his character chases around an Englishman, albeit with very different intentions.

The roundabout language that the gay male characters in “A Single Man” have to use in discussing their homosexuality — they have to dance around the subject — is interesting, and maybe one could argue that it was more romantic and thrilling to be gay during the time when you couldn’t talk about “the love that dare not speak its name” directly. The closet is a soul-stifling place to be, however, so I can’t say that I’d trade today’s more open atmosphere for the thrill or the romance of the closet, if there ever was or is such a thing.

The charged interaction between Kenny and George raises the issue of how much of an age difference is OK in sexual relationships, but to me the even larger issue is whether a college professor of any sexual persuasion should be sleeping with any of his or her students. (The answer to that is no, and I won’t tell you how it plays out between Kenny and George.)

The dynamic between George and Kenny seems to mirror the real-life dynamic between Christopher Isherwood and his much younger partner, Don Bachardy, who still was in his teens when he and the 48-year-old Isherwood met and became a couple in the 1950s in Southern California, where in the 1950s and 1960s Isherwood taught English at Los Angeles State College (now Californa State University at Los Angeles; and no, Barchardy was not a student of Isherwood’s when they met).

The worthwhile 2008 documentary “Chris & Don: A Love Story,” chronicles Isherwood and Bachardy’s relationship up to Isherwood’s death from prostate cancer at age 81 in 1986. (Unlike “A Single Man’s” character of Jim, Bachardy outlived Isherwood, and he is alive today; interestingly, Tom Ford reportedly said in this interview: “As I understand it from Don Bachardy … Christopher wrote this story when Don left him for about eight months and moved to New York with someone else. Christopher imagined that Don had died and that he was alone, and he wrote this story.”)

While “Chris & Don” demonstrates that the significant age difference between Isherwood and Bachardy apparently sometimes reared its ugly head in their relationship — such as how Isherwood apparently often was a father figure to Barchardy as well as his lover, and how Isherwood allowed the much younger Barchardy to have dalliances with men of his own generation — I hesitate to judge two others’ relationship, as only the two people in a relationship can really know what that relationship is all about.

“Chris & Don” and “A Single Man” are good companion pieces, and I recommend that those who have seen and enjoyed one of the two films see the other.

And I add “A Single Man” to the canon of worthwhile films about what it was like to be gay back in the day, such as “Brokeback Mountain” (which, like “A Single Man,” also takes place in the early 1960s), “Far from Heaven” (also starring Julianne Moore, and which, like “A Single Man” does, captures the look and feel of the time period shockingly well), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Milk” (of course).

My only gripe with “A Single Man” is that I don’t like its ending. Why do so many gay protagonists have to meet with a tragic ending? Why do the straights so often get to live happily ever after but we gay men so often don’t?

I don’t blame Tom Ford, though; I have an old paperbook copy of Isherwood’s A Single Man, which I haven’t read, but I did glimpse at the novel’s ending, and apparently Ford was being faithful to the ending of the novel. (He probably would have gotten some shit from the purists if he hadn’t.)

I’d like to think that if Isherwood wrote the novel today, it would have a happier ending, an ending that he just couldn’t have imagined when he had it published in 1964.

My grade: A-

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