At 80, Don Bachardy has built a body of work that can only be described as staggering. With tremendous detail and nuance, he has drawn or painted the portraits of thousands of people, many of them noteworthy luminaries of the Hollywood star system. It was through his long-term relationship with the late author Christopher Isherwood — who methodically recorded the rise of fascism in Germany in his Berlin Diaries — that Bachardy was able to connect with what seems like everyone who was anyone in the American film business.
A stunning coffee-table book titled simply Hollywood (Glitterati; $75), his latest book features over 300 memorable portraits of various figures from California’s Dream Factory, including Bette Davis, Joan Collins, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Altman, Mia Farrow, Jack Nicholson, Ian McKellen, Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, among many others.
Bachardy spoke to me from his Santa Monica home.
How was it you initially chose your subjects?
Don Bachardy: By being fairly all-inclusive. Anyone I could get at. You see, being a portrait artist, demands a certain road to be followed. I can do a perfectly good likeness of my next door neighbour, but only so many people will recognize their likeness. So I have to be a celebrity hunter — at least I did in my early years. That was facilitated considerably by my association with Isherwood. He was very supportive and encouraging and helpful in providing me access to all kinds of well-known people to whom I would make my plea. With surprising good luck I got many of them to sit with me.
Your process involves sitting with someone for several hours. Was there someone you remember as being especially difficult?
Charles Laughton was difficult because he fancied himself such a knower of art, and how it’s done. He decided to be a restless sitter. He had me chasing after him with my pencil. I was very green at the time and awed by Mr. Laughton, not daring to tell him, ‘Please have a heart and help me by being still for a few moments!’ It couldn’t have been less helpful. He was really insufferable in many ways. He thought he was being a young artist’s friend by not making it easy for me. He was so patronizing. No young artist needs that.
I love the story about Joan Rivers looking at the portrait you did of her and saying, “You’ve made me look like my aunt.” What’s most surprising in terms of responses to your portraits?
What I hear most often, it’s quite predictable: “Oh, I look so sad.” Now why is that? There are very few artists who devote themselves to portraiture. Many of those who do work from photographs. Which I call photocopying. The truth about sitting for an artist, the good sitter is a still sitter. The very best sitter is a concentrated sitter who is still. What you get then is a very good drawing or painting of someone looking serious, looking like they’ve got something going on in their heads. And maybe something grave. That, to me, is far more interesting, than looking at someone with a simpering smile on their face. Some people who sit for me think they’re doing me a favor. They’re doing themselves a favor, by trying to make me record what they want to look like, instead of leaving my profession to me. Let me decide what it is about you that is interesting and original. It doesn’t help, smiling at me. And yet how do I say to someone very famous, ‘Take that silly smile off your face!’ They think in those terms because that’s what photography has done to us. It’s given us maybe 200 choices from a single sitting. So many don’t look at the painterly technique, they say, “Oh, I look so sad.” What’s wrong with looking serious? Some people feel disappointed after the process.
When I did look at your portrait of Montgomery Clift, perhaps I’m reading into it because of what I know of his life, but he does look intensely vulnerable in that portrait.
You know why? Because he trusted me. He didn’t flirt, he wasn’t coy, he didn’t imitate a self-consciousness. He really looked at me, in a still and serious way. It was after his automobile accident, which changed his face radically. He was disappointed in me, because he saw what he didn’t want to see. He was hoping that I, being an artist, could restore his earlier, handsomer face, and of course I can’t. I can only record what I see, and that’s the whole point of working from life, it’s not tampering with what is there, not tampering with the truth. I did two drawings of him from that single sitting.
The book includes drawings you did for The Stepford Wives, which is such a great film.
The director, Bryan Forbes, was an early supporter of mine, an early sitter. He saw my first exhibition in London in 1961, and commissioned me to do his portrait and his wife and daughter’s portraits as well. He was an early believer in me. He was intelligent enough not to smile at me. When the film came along, he asked me to do the drawings.
“I’ve always been a huge moviegoer, and I think that going to the movies from such a young age is what made me a portrait artist. I got so interested in those giant close-ups of actors’ faces — at first I thought I wanted to be an actor, because I was identifying with those people on screen. Those images gave me my interest in faces, but also my natural inclination of imitating people internally.”
I unconsciously transformed that experience into identifying with the actor sitting in front of me. It took me years to realize what I was doing, because it was so instinctive. It was a seamless transition for me, from moviegoer to portrait artist. It was like going to the movies, but even better, because they were inches away from me.
What’s your favourite memory of Roddy McDowall?
My favourite memory is what a charming, generous person he was. Not as a sitter, though. As a sitter he was wary of me. With actors, it is difficult, because the way they look is part of their profession. For them to protect their representation, photographs and paintings of them, they don’t want to come out looking older and grimmer than they are. I loved him, he was a dear friend, but not as a sitter. There was a certain rivalry between us. He was only a little bit older than me. He wanted to tease me, by being elusive. By smiling and moving around a lot. Our sittings were early on for me, so I hadn’t developed the ability to try to explain what it was I wanted. He knew it, he just didn’t want to give it to me.
There was a bit of a scandal about you and Christopher Isherwood, due to your age difference. Do you think that’s changed now?
Things are much more relaxed now, or so it seems. Chris was hired by David Selznick to do a film for him, and they got on very well. Chris started getting invited to their parties, at which just about every other person was a major Hollywood star. I was dazzled. It was like going to a kind of fantasy, dream party, with all these movie stars I’d grown up with, in the flesh! It was unbelievably exciting for me, and also, because I was with such a distinguished literary figure, I didn’t have to worry about making conversation, I could just stand close to Chris, who would do all the talking, while I did all the looking. And that was blissful.
We were the only male couple in the whole party. Of course, there were people who were deeply shocked, but didn’t show it. The only person who made a comment that he intended me to hear was Joseph Cotten, who said he deplored “half men.” He said it with a real professional actor’s ability, to be sure that I would hear it but not Chris. I could have cared less about Cotten.
It’s surprising, when I think of it now, that there wasn’t more difficulty at that time. Chris simply would not hide me away in the closet. He was British, not ashamed of himself for being queer, and taught me that there was no reason for me to be ashamed of it either. I felt entirely fortified by his company, and that was wonderful, because I knew he wasn’t kidding. What luck I had, to realize at eighteen what an amazing man he was.
An associate editor of Rover, Matthew Hays teaches film studies at Concordia University and is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp).