Tuesday, January 19, 2010
A SINGLE MAN
The novel A SINGLE MAN by Christopher Isherwood became one of my favorite books the first time I read it. I always loved Isherwood, one of the great stylists of 20th Century English. In fact, his way with the written word transformed my deep seated resentment toward most things upper-class Brit and made a fan of me.
I met him in Manhattan in the 1970s when he was visiting and had dinner at his home in Santa Monica Canyon shortly after I moved nearby in the early '80s. The other people there at the time were my then wife, a terrific actress who I had fallen for watching her in a play, not realizing I was falling for a character not the person playing the role, and Chris's...what?
How do we describe a person who Chris had first fallen in love with decades before and had lived with since then and would continue to live with until his death, who was the love of his life but happened to be a man? His pal? His buddy? His "partner" or "lifetime companion" or worse yet—boyfriend?
That is part of the point of A SINGLE MAN, both the book and the movie. The book was quietly revolutionary, appearing in 1964, five years before The Stonewall "riots" that sparked what became know for a while as "the gay revolution"—i.e. the movement to finally grant equality to "gays" and "lesbians" (also terms that don't seem to fit very well the reality that we're all human and "sexuality"—even "gender"—is found on a sliding scale that's not necessarily fixed, and even if individuals feel it is for them their place on that scale is not universal, no matter how much it may seem "the norm" to them).
The book is relatively short, some call it a novelette though I don't like those kind of limiting labels any more than I do the ones above. Short or not it is intense. The portrait of an aging "homosexual" English transplant professor to Southern California who has lost the love of his life, a younger "American" man.
It's passionate, romantic, yet full of irony, criticism of the larger culture including heterosexuals, even rage. It's so tightly packed the single day it covers in this man's life gives any good reader an entire life in that day. Told from his point of view it captures exactly what it meant to be alive in that man's body and consciousness at that time and place.
It was up to then the most honest depiction of what it meant to be "a single man"—a common euphemism at the time for homosexual—i.e. living alone, not married-with-kids at middle age. But also singular, not just in his outsiderness of preferring men romantically and sexually as partners, but as an Englishman in Southern California, a middle-aged man among young students at a time (1962) when "America" was waking up sensually in ways it never had before thanks to "the pill" and the influence of The Beats and what would morph into "the love generation" and its wide embrace of drugs and "free love" that only the rarest of bohemians and artists had experienced previously.
All that resonates in the book in subtle and not so subtle ways, because it was unfolding as Isherwood wrote it in those first years of the 1960s, but only the most perceptive observers were aware it was even happening.
The book is about loss as well, which is its most profound subject, and not just of a loved one. I don't like giving away plots so that's enough about the story.
The movie is something else. The main message still at the heart of it is loss of a loved one who, in this case, the world cannot acknowledge because of the restraints and prejudices against, and actual oppression of, those who love each other but were not allowed to do so openly back when the book and movie are set, and still can't do it legally in ways (marriage!) that grant the benefits others have (as has been pointed out by others, convicted murderers and predators and all kinds of repulsive characters locked up for life behind bars can legally marry as long as the couple are "a man and a woman"—whatever that means).
A lot of liberties have been taken in the movie. Don Bachardy, Chris's love—and a man I consider a friend, as I did Chris—had some input on the movie and gave the go ahead for Tom Ford, the fashion designer/movie director, and his co-writing partner, David Scearce, to do what they had to to make the book work as a movie. A lot of minor details have been changed, and some major ones, but the heart of the story remains the same.
For instance in the book the main character is 58 at a time when that would have looked and felt older for most folks than it does now, including the main character and yet in the film he's played by Colin Firth who appears, at least to me, to be barely in his forties if that. So some of the pain and insight of the book's version of this character has to be portrayed in other ways.
Ford does a pretty good job but, as some have already noted, there is a kind of fashion conscious gloss to some scenes that could undercut the emotional impact for some of what is a very moving movie. There were a few times when I felt like I was leafing through a fashion magazine, enjoying the beautiful models or innovative photography or just the styles displayed.
Like the Bidget Bardot look-alike who has no lines, at least none we can hear, but holds a cigarette like you might imagine a young Sophia Loren might (not to mix international beauties too much here). And the young men are all photographed as if for a spread in Vogue, so much so I figured they had to be models acting for the first time and doing a really good job despite the distraction of the impeccable style, but in fact they were actors who never looked so good because they never had a fashion designer for a director before I imagine.
Julianne Moore, who sometimes I find too cold in her film roles, as if she were acting with her mind more than her soul, is great as Charlotte, another English ex-pat in Santa Monica Canyon. She gives a performance that deserves praise for its courage in some scenes (but she's always been pretty fearless when it comes to the physicality of her characters, it's just their emotional depths that she sometimes seems to be holding back on, or maybe I mean identification with). It's a performance enhanced by Ford's eye for the flaws beneath the glamor (though I felt he wasn't as harsh on his male characters).
But it's Colin Firth who gives the tour-de-force performance, a completely compelling realization of a heartbroken man, but one who is a secretive, protective, upper-class-British-intellectual still able to maintain appearances but not what lies beneath them. It's an extraordinary performance that deserves an Oscar but I doubt will get it.
Jeff Bridges I suspect is the one this year, because he has consistently given Oscar-worthy performances and been overlooked for most of his career, at least as the amazing actor he has proven himself to be every time out. Firth will probably have to wait to get his belated compensation for earlier roles like this one in A SINGLE MAN. But I may be wrong.
A SINGLE MAN the movie is a very separate work from the novel, but you might say both are incredibly singular works of art, maybe not for "the masses" as they say, but definitely for the discerning book and movie lover.
[Just to update my brain surgery recovery now in the first week of my third month after, I had to retype "doubt" a few lines up there several times before I finally got it right because despite what my brain was telling my fingers they kept typing "boudt"—a dyslexic kind of thing which has given me insight into that condition—and last night in trying to close a bag of cookies, actually tiny biscottti squares called "Biscotti Babies" made by a friend of my older son and mine (at 955 South Main St. in Great Barrington Mass.) I couldn't remember how you close a bag with those two thin bendy tabs coming out the sides near the top, it just seemed unfathomable to me, until a friend took them from me and did it and then I thought, oh yeah, of course. Little stuff like that still happening, but over all feeling pretty lucky to be this far along and this close to what "normal" was for me before the surgery.]