“We’re invisible!” a young man (Matthew Goode) chides his older lover (Colin Firth), cheekily kissing him “where the neighbors can see.” It’s a brief but central moment in A Single Man, Tom Ford’s lushly appointed, deeply moving adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s finest novel. Published in 1964, this day-in-the-life of a college professor dealing with the death of his male lover was a genuine shock to a culture that demanded no one “ask” or “tell” anything about the lives of gays and lesbians. We were “depraved,” “neurotic,” and therefore well outside the realm of polite conversation. A Single Man wasn’t having any of that.
“His is a fairly modest anal disposition,” the normally insightful Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of Isherwood’s protagonist in The New York Review of Books, “respectable enough, with a finicky, faggoty interest in the looks of things — far from the corruption and splendor of his type in French fiction.” Compounding the insult, she then added, “He is a perverse mixture of arrogance and shyness, suspicion and indifference.” In short, he’s someone Hardwick is annoyed at being obliged to take seriously; an affront to what Isherwood called “the Heterosexual Dictatorship.”
Today few would find A Single Man’s title character anything other than a calm, composed, perfectly pleasant middle-aged professor grieving for his lost love. But such was quite a shock to straights back in 1964, and Hardwick’s hysterical put-down, replacing what Isherwood actually wrote with a stock figure of homophobic fantasy, was the least of it. A particularly scathing review in the Los Angeles Times bore the headline “Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga” and claimed A Single Man to be the work of someone who “hates women.”
Yes, it was a different time. The Stonewall uprising was five years away, and Cabaret — the film version of the Broadway musical based on Isherwood’s Berlin Stories — was some eight years off. While it differed considerably from what Isherwood published in 1939 about the Germany he knew before Hitler’s rise, director Bob Fosse’s fanciful yet tart confection proved instrumental in introducing Isherwood’s entire oeuvre to a new generation. The success of Cabaret in turn led to Isherwood writing Christopher and His Kind, a sort of autobiographical “correction” to his quasi-autobiographical fictions, filling in any number of blanks, especially with regard to his sexual candor. But Isherwood always operated as a free man, writing whatever he wanted entirely for his own reasons. Rather than “ahead of his time,” he was always of it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum, “There are no second acts in American lives,” certainly doesn’t apply to Isherwood, who had three. Act 1 finds him famous in the England of his youth as an aspiring mystic, looking to the East for spiritual guidance and serving as the model for the Larry Darrell character in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Isherwood could have had a successful British career, but that would have meant compromise both artistically and sexually. So he absconded to Germany and what turned out to be the last days of the free-and-easy Weimar Republic, enjoying the favors of numerous handsome youths. Wisely, he made his exit before Hitler came to power, but he only pit-stopped back in England on his way to the U.S., where in remarkably short order he came to Hollywood, was hired by MGM and wrote Rage in Heaven (1941) for Ingrid Bergman — the first of many screenwriting jobs.
By then, the curtain had risen on Act 2: The Berlin Stories havingcemented Isherwood’s worldwide fame, the novels Prater Violet, The World in the Evening and Down There on a Visit followed. But while the earlier adventures of “Herr Issyvoo” dominated his cultural profile, America provided an end to his spiritual search, as Vedanta adepts in L.A. were only too happy to win so distinguished an acolyte. More importantly, he was able to live here in sexual freedom, culminating in his meeting the love of his life, the portrait artist Don Bachardy.
A Single Man is where Act 3 begins, for it was written in the mid-’60s, when Isherwood thought Bachardy (who became his lover in 1953) might leave him. “It would be as if Don had died,” he said to himself, and thus wrote a story about an Isherwood-like character whose younger lover has been killed in an automobile accident. Composed in a third-person stream-of-consciousness, A Single Man is the pluperfect example of what Gore Vidal calls the “constant clarity of prose style” that is Isherwood’s hallmark. Clarity likewise marks Ford’s film, the cool visual beauty of which (think David Hockney meets Wong Kar Wai) never gets in the way of the heart of the matter: the integrity of gay love.
Clearly, Ford doesn’t see himself as a militant, but arriving as it does in the midst of cultural trench warfare over same-sex marriage, A Single Man packs a political wallop, particularly in two key scenes. The first is where our hero gets a phone call informing him of his beloved’s passing, along with the caveat that the funeral will be “family only.” (How many gays and lesbians have gotten that very same call? Too many to count.) The second comes toward the end of an otherwise convivial dinner with a close female friend (the always terrific Julianne Moore), who gets her head ever-so-politely handed to her by Firth when she declares his relationship with his late lover wasn’t “real.”
It was, of course, all too real. And so are the relationships of countless same-sex couples — many of whom have been together as long as Isherwood and Bachardy were (more than 30 years), many even longer. Thanks to a gay-rights movement in which Isherwood’s life and art played a hardly insignificant role, “We’re invisible” no longer applies.
A Single Man opens on December 11 in L.A. theaters. For Scott Foundas’ review, see Opening This Week.